ORLANDO, Fla. -- When it comes to instant replay, the NFL likes to have a toe in the water. Or the tip of a toe. But the league really could benefit from becoming completely submerged.
More instant replay scares the NFL because it's untraditional and technological and time-consuming. But isn't getting the call right all that matters?
On Tuesday, the league adopted a smart proposal to allow on-field referees to communicate with a league official in New York to help make the call on replay reviews. Now whenever a referee goes under the hood, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino will be able to guide him from the Officiating Command Center. It's a similar centralized system to the one used in the NHL. The ultimate call still belongs to the referee, but the referee probably isn't going to overrule his superior very often. That immediately makes Blandino one of the most powerful men in sports, because he will have the ability to affect the outcomes of hundreds of games every year.
Blandino will help the officials make the right call more frequently. And the right call could be made even more frequently if all plays fell under the replay umbrella, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick suggested. The proposal failed to go through Wednesday, as did a proposal submitted by the Redskins that called for personal fouls to be reviewable.
The primary objection to these proposals was the fear that more replays will result in longer games. This may be the only instance in which league officials think more NFL is not a good thing -- they want more regular season, more playoffs and more offseason exposure, but they like their games to fit into neat little three-hour packages. Blandino tried to ease this concern by assuring owners that he and his crew will be reviewing controversial plays from the time they are happening, before referees even go under the hood. But that didn't persuade some, like Bengals owner Mike Brown. "They've come up with restraints that should prevent it from taking longer, but whether that's how it works out, in fact, is not certain, in my mind," Brown told Bengals.com "Because I've seen over time a lot of assurances about what it would and what it wouldn't do, and the one thing I do know is that our games are longer and I don't like that. I don't think our games should be three hours, and now we're sitting on three hours and seven minutes and we're saying that's fine. I don't think so. I would rather that we do things to shorten them."
Brown is right. Games are too long, and making them longer would not be a good thing. But it would be a better thing than failing to seize every available opportunity to get officiating as close to perfect as possible. If technology can make officiating better -- and it can -- the NFL owes it to fans, teams and officials to take advantage of it.
It's interesting that many of the coaches have championed more replay, while the owners have been tapping the breaks. "It's our feeling that the technology has caught up with the game in a lot of ways," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Sometimes, we lag behind the technology a little bit, and you should. You should come to change slowly, and you should do things for the right reasons. I think the league is right in doing that, but it's about time now to recognize that when the fans have a better view of the game than the referee does, then it's time to put the referee in the same playing field as the fans, and you do that through the technology."
Belichick also submitted a proposal to add six cameras to each field so officials have better angles on reviews. On Tuesday, he spoke passionately (for him) about making all plays reviewable. "I'm not proposing more challenges," he said. "All I'm saying is, as a coach, if you want to challenge a play, I think you should be able to challenge it. And why does it have to be limited to -- I don't know, there's four or five pages in the rules book of plays that can be challenged, and now this year there are more proposals to amend that, probably because of one or two plays that happened in the league last year. I think eventually, each year, there's going to be some other circumstance, situation that comes up and we're going to want to add that… Every year it gets amended, and it's hard to keep it straight. I can't get it right…I don't know how the fans could possibly get it right if the coaches can't get it right. For the officials themselves, it's challenging."
Between high-def screens, stop-motion and zoom technology, and former officials becoming broadcast analysts, officiating is being scrutinized like never before. So there's an appearance of more controversial calls than ever, and more wrong calls. Regardless of whether that appearance is accurate, the perception has become the NFL's reality.
Something is wrong when fans are walking out of stadiums talking about Clete Blakeman and not Tom Brady. Making better use of replay would result in less attention on officials and more attention on players and coaches.