The NFL is taking subtle and unseen steps toward increased reliance on replay. It's a start but can still be better.
GREEN BAY - If you think the NFL has been slow in adding an eye-in-the-sky official, you’re right.
It’s past time to have an umpire in the replay booth who’s a full member of the officiating crew and can weigh in on any number of calls and non-calls, both objective and subjective.
But what you might not know unless you closely followed NFL rules changes last spring and then remembered them when the games started in September is that the league is taking a meaningful step in that direction this season.
It’s still not near the point where an umpire in the booth tells the referee to pick up the flag on a call such as Jaire Alexander’s roughing-the-passer penalty in the fourth quarter of the Green Bay Packers’ last-second win at San Francisco a couple weeks ago. That replay showed Alexander didn’t hit Jimmy Garoppolo in the head or neck area even though it might have looked like it from the angle referee Jerome Boger saw on the field.
But last offseason the NFL’s competition committee approved rules changes and a technological upgrade that allow the replay assistant to confirm or change calls proactively, quickly enough where most observers at the game and watching on television aren’t even aware.
“Long story short, it’s like they’ve already started,” said Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former vice president of officiating and now a rules analyst for Fox Sports, said of the evolution toward a true sky judge. “But they’ve done it where it’s not noticeable. It’s public knowledge that there’s now a replay assistant, and it’s not a sky judge in a separate booth with the television equipment. It’s still the replay guy. But it allows him to correct things on the field in real time. And it’s ground, lines and planes. It’s not personal fouls, it’s not judgment calls — yet.”
The NFL has been slow to move on these things, in large part because of concerns about unintended consequences. When it comes to money the league moves like lightning, but with the game itself ownership is often glacial.
But the league now has the technology for a booth umpire to see any replay angle swiftly and make a call fast. The modified replay rules passed last spring give the replay assistant authority to confirm or change calls on his own on a relatively narrow set of parameters. Replay assistants had some unwritten latitude in that regard last season, but now it’s codified and being used extensively.
Pereira, who is an advocate of the sky judge, has been advised of the early-season numbers, which the league has asked him not to divulge. He says the replay assistant has been involved in a “significant” number of calls this year, far more than he would have guessed based on watching games as part of his job for Fox.
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His earlier “ground, lines and planes” comment was referring to the areas where the replay assistant can step in. The ground means whether a ballcarrier is down or a pass caught. Lines is whether a player was in-bounds. And planes is whether the ball crossed the plane for a first down or touchdown.
“I feel good about the fact that they’re at least trying something and they’re going to be making corrections in real time that spectators will not know,” Pereira said.
With the Hawk-Eye replay system the league approved using this year, the replay official doesn’t have to wait for or rely on replays the network broadcast decides to show. That’s crucial, because a network producer has a different agenda than a replay official.
The replay assistant now has access to all camera angles of a play, and the cameras are synchronized. So that speeds things up, because he can look at replays immediately, and he has until 20 seconds left on the play clock to confirm or change a call.
He also can look at one angle to see whether a ballcarrier’s knee is down, and then if he can’t see the ball on that shot he can immediately look at other angles in that instant to see whether the ball is coming out for a fumble or across the plane for a first down or touchdown.
When you hear Pereira and other broadcast rules analysts talk about the video assistant piecing a play together, that’s what they’re describing. There’s no timing guesswork, because the replay system shows all the angles simultaneously and in sync.
“They get the shot they want,” Pereira said.
The question is whether the league will continue adding to the replay assistant’s authority little by little over a long period of time, or move quickly in the next couple offseasons. History says it will be the former, but you never know. In 2019 all 32 head coaches voted to recommend a sky judge proposal. The men in charge of the teams on the field are in favor of moving quickly, even if ownership lags.
The Baltimore Ravens’ failed proposal this year empowered a sky judge to change egregious errors in real time before the next play, which could save coaches challenges and speed the game. But the real value would be taking the next step and extending the sky judge's authority to help the crew on the field with big, game-changing judgment calls such as personal fouls and pass interference. The Alexander roughing-the-passer penalty, for instance, came in the fourth quarter of a three-point game at San Francisco.
The league already tried using the challenge-replay system on pass interference, in 2019, and that was a disaster because the call on the field was almost always upheld. But Pereira thinks the problem was the impossibly high standard the rules set for overturning a call.
“It could succeed if you just said it is or isn’t (a penalty),” Pereira said. “If video evidence shows you it is, then it is, you can add it. The standard in replay would be the same standard as the officials on the field.”
The NFL at least is taking a step toward the sky judge this year, subtle as it’s been. I have to admit I forgot about this season’s expanded authority of the replay assistant until talking with Pereira this week. It sounds like officials on the field are getting help on calls such as catch or no-catch without most of us even realizing it.
That’s a start. Let’s just hope ownership doesn’t take a decade to empower a real sky judge when it could do it in two or three.