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Has The NFL’s Instant Replay Run Its Course?

There’s a classic coachspeak phrase that gets trotted out when people blame losses on bad officiating: “You’ve got to take it out of the refs’ hands.” After an NFL season when replay-review changes intended to fix officiating mistakes seemed only to complicate matters, it may be time to take instant replay out of the refs’ hands, too.

The 2019 season was full of heated discourse about officials and instant replay. That simmering anger boiled over in the last game of the regular season, when officials failed to review a game-deciding no-call at the end of the 49ers’ tilt with the Seahawks. The 49ers won, giving them the No. 1 seed and pushing the New Orleans Saints out of a first-round bye — and into a wild-card game that the Saints lost on another controversial no-call.

Of course, pass interference is only reviewable because of this year’s offseason rule change — a reaction to another pass-interference no-call that also knocked the Saints out of the playoffs.

But only 24 of 101 replay reviews involving pass interference resulted in reversals this regular season. Instant reply had even less of an effect on plays when PI was called on the field; just three of 27 such reviews led to an overturn — and none of the 13 coach-initiated reviews overturned a PI call.

If zero coaches’ challenges of pass-interference penalties were successful, what’s the point of reviewing PI?

Instant replay as a whole has an up-and-down history. When the league first implemented the reviews in 1986, the technology was limited, and its uses were even more limited. That first year, the NFL averaged 1.6 replay reviews per game — yet only about 10 percent of the replays led to a reversal. Though that share increased to 15.7 percent in 1991, the league later determined that nine of the 90 reversals were incorrect — and the video-replay official’s tape-based review system led to long, seemingly random delays.

NFL owners decided it was more trouble than it was worth. So from 1992 to 1998, there was no replay review at all.

How this Super Bowl compares to others in the past

But improving broadcast and television technology, in-stadium video displays and the advent of digital video recording and playback made it possible for everyone at home and in the stands to see immediate replays. The league reintroduced replay review in 1999, with a complex system of coaches’ challenges, burned timeouts, maximum delays and on-field equipment. As both broadcasters and viewers upgraded to high-definition digital displays, replay review got better. From 2011 to 2016, NFL games had an average of 1.6 replay reviews per game, with 41 percent of them resulting in an on-field call being overturned.

But the system has been far from perfect. It’s been frequently tweaked and upgraded, often in apparent response to anger over specific plays from players, coaches and fans. Super slow-motion, high-definition replays from multiple angles also exacerbated problems with the rules themselves, as in the infamous “Dez Caught It” controversy. Before the 2017 season, the league tried to improve consistency by giving Vice President of Officiating Al Riveron (or another senior official) final say over replay reviews from a command center in the league office — but if anything, consistency has seemed even more elusive.

For its part, the league has already announced that it is doing a “top-down review” of officiating — just one season after it implemented a “configuration change” that was supposed to optimize technology and personnel for a modern, fast-moving NFL (and its newly reviewable pass-interference rules). According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, major changes to the replay-review infrastructure are in the works for 2020, including streaming every camera at every game to New York at all times (cutting TV producers out of the decisions of which camera angles are available to officials).

But no matter how many camera angles are streaming at whatever definition to however many NFL executives, the problems of replay haven’t changed. The rules of the game weren’t written to account for the world instantly being able to see barely perceptible ball movements inside a player’s grasp, or edges of shoes brushing up against single blades of turf. Trying to get every call indisputably correct has eroded the “50 drunks in a bar” standard to something more like a debate among 50 members of a bar association.

Fortunately, the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs avoided any outcome-affecting replay headaches in their conference-championship games, winning by a combined final score of 72-44. But there’s no guarantee that the Super Bowl will be free of officiating drama. And the NFL certainly doesn’t want that kind of drama on its biggest stage.

How this Super Bowl compares to others in the past

If this Super Bowl does involve a pass interference situation mirroring the infamous Saints incident from last season, maybe we’ll be glad to have a challenge available. But it may be better for the league to ditch replay on pass interference calls.

In fact, there’s a compelling argument for the NFL to drop instant replay altogether. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll had this to say in May to NBC Sports’s Peter King on how to improve the game.

“Get rid of, or at least decrease the use of, instant replay. … I miss the human element of trusting the officials to make the calls in the moment and then the rest of us having to live with what they called. It was both fun and frustrating, but I really liked the game better when the officials were just as much a part of the game as the players.”

Though Carroll’s appeal to the “human element” may fall flat with fans — blown calls are not a positive — the NFL has put so many layers of technology and lawyering between the game and the fans that it might be more fun to watch without instant replay at all. There’s no question that the system currently in use is better than the 1986 version — but as in 1991, the baggage around replay review has become so heavy that the league may be better off taking it out of the refs’ hands.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.