On game day, every NFL stadium bristles with video cameras. Cameras on the field, cameras on platforms around the field, cameras on cranes on platforms around the field, cameras perched in the rafters and above the upper decks and even robot cameras whizzing around the field, above the players' heads.
All of these lenses and machines generate zillions of bits per second of digital football. All the streams from all the angles get synced up, spliced together on the fly and simulcast around the stadium and world. Every one of the thousands of people inside the stadium, and millions inside their homes, can see what they're seeing, or what they just saw, clear as day on giant, high-definition video monitors.
Everyone, apparently, except the replay officials.
Officials Under Pressure
NFL officials have never been under more scrutiny, thanks to the league's lockout of the officials and the terrible job done by the replacement refs. The league even made sure to sync up in-stadium displays and replay monitors, so crowds see exactly what referees see.
The league has also been increasing the situations in which the replay official automatically reviews plays, just in case coaches run out of challenges or on-field officials make an obvious error.
Yet, replay officials are making more visible mistakes than ever, making the on-field officials who rely on them look foolish.
A Perpetual Balancing Act
The NFL has a love-hate relationship with instant replay. The league pioneered its use in 1986, but in 1992 it got sick of interminable delays while an official in the booth rewound and fast-forwarded physical video tape. The NFL dropped replay in 1993, and through 1998, it had no way to reverse obviously bad calls.
As television and replay technology improved, it became increasingly ridiculous that everyone with an interest in the game could see what the right call was, but officials couldn't do anything about it.
So before the 1999 season, the league re-introduced limited official replay. Digital video systems and high-definition image quality increased speed and accuracy, and the challenge system kept a lid on the number of times everyone has to sit around and listen to the Jeopardy! music.
It was thought to be the perfect way to balance getting calls right with disrupting the flow of the game.
However, the implementation has always been awkward.
A Deeply Flawed System
Coaches have a limited number of challenges tied to their separately limited number of timeouts—except when they get all their challenges right, or if they call timeout before they challenge or it's a play that's supposed to be automatically reviewed.
The replay official upstairs could be signaled by the officials on the field, or vice versa—unless the signal isn't working or either official doesn't hit the signal before the next snap.
Certain plays are automatically reviewed, except when the replay official makes a mistake, which tends to happen because replay officials are generally the worst-performing officials, as NBC officiating consultant Jim Daopoulos told Pro Football Talk.
That may explain why non-locked-out replay official Howard Slavin failed to correct replacement officials' "Fail Mary" disaster in the Week 3 Monday Night Football game.
That may explain why replay official Bob Boylston failed to notice Denver Broncos returner Trindon Holliday didn't take the ball with him as he broke the plane of the end zone on a long return.
That may explain why NFL director of instant replay Dean Blandino had to go on NFL Network and say the NFL allowed an apparent Andrew Luck pick-six to stand, erroneously, because the replay official didn't send the conclusive angle to the on-field ref.
The referee never got a look at this angle because the replay official didn’t send it down to the field, and that’s something that we’re going to work on and we have been working on to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
How can they make sure it doesn't happen again?
The Ghost in the Machine
The NFL's replay system is broken. The desire of officials to keep final control of all on-field matters makes it so.
No matter what tweaks or adjustments the NFL makes, as long as the replay official is the poorest-performing member of the crew, trying to do the job by proxy through the head referee, the system will always be broken.
College football conferences have long since fixed this. They put a senior referee or well-qualified officiating executive in the booth, with every high-definition angle available to them for instant review. Every play gets a look-see, and if further review is warranted, they signal to the ref to stop play and review it.
This is basically the same system the NFL abandoned in 1992, but with the speed and technology to do it right. Meanwhile, the NFL's inability to manage all its complex system's moving parts is putting a serious drag on the quality of games.
Until the NFL lets every play and call be quickly reviewable by a skilled official with full access to every angle, there's really no reason for replay to exist.