One of the rules being presented to NFL owners, general managers and head coaches at the NFL owners meetings on Tuesday is the Buffalo Bills' proposal to take instant replay reviews away from the referee and give them to the replay booth.
While not as impactful as the proposal to have every play that results in a change of possession reviewed (which I at first thought was overkill, but upon reflection think is a good idea) this would be a pretty significant change in the way the game is officiated, one that I think is ultimately unnecessary.
Andy Benoit of the New York Times' Fifth Down blog makes a compelling case for the change here.
The understandable concern is prolonging the game. College football has an out-of-control replay setup; every play is subject to booth review and each team has one challenge. But the N.F.L. could instruct replay officials to be judicious with their powers. The league could publicly trumpet its goal of officiating perfection while privately telling the booth lords that it’s better to have a minor missed call or two and maintain the flow of a game than to nitpick for 3 hours 45 minutes.
When you think about it, red challenge flags are dramatic and fun, but it’s senseless to have a system that saddles a head coach with the responsibility of monitoring his team and the officiating crew. Why should arguing calls be a built-in element of strategy? In every sport, the goal with officials is to make them unrecognizable. Having replays quickly take place automatically and in a booth rather than in deliberate fashion on the field is the best way to do that.
I'm more inclined to side with what a head coach in the AFC told Sports Illustrated's Don Banks recently:
No way, let's keep it on the field. I don't want there to be some unknown entity up there, who's not accountable to anybody and you can't even see him, can't even tell who he is. The referee should be accountable for it. And I think the (competition) committee feels that way, too. I don't think it's changing.
See, I get that.
While Andy's analysis makes sense, it goes too far toward sanitizing a game that has already become cluttered with lawyer-like officiating. Every time a play is reviewed, we wait while the play in question is replayed, listening to multiple analysts telling us why what we can plainly see is a touchdown is not, indeed, a touchdown. There is always going to be a judgement call being made by someone that coaches, players and fans are going to ultimately disagree with—but having a name and face for that person seems important.
Don't get me wrong, I don't want to come across like one of those baseball purists who drone on about the "human element" when it comes to adjudicating the game on the field. Replay is an important aspect of getting things right, especially for a sport watched (not to mentioned DVR'd) by millions of people on their high definition televisions.
However, marginalizing the men in charge of officiating the game seems a step toward watching a video game rather than the game of NFL football.