The History of Instant Replay in the NFL

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The History of Instant Replay in the NFL
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On September 7th, 1986, instant replay was used for the first time in an NFL regular-season game. The contest pitted the defending Super Bowl Champions, the Chicago Bears, against the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns had a play reviewed. The initial example of instant replay in action was described by author Ken Thomas in his review of the 1986 season, written for UK television station Channel 4:

The league's use of instant replay was called into action on only the third play of the game between Cleveland and the reigning Super Bowl Champion Bears. Cleveland safety Al Gross recovered possession in the Chicago end zone after a bad snap from center Jay Hilgenberg. The officials on the field said, 'maybe,' and the man in the booth said 'yes.'

(taken from Ken Thomas, American Football Book 5, page 10, MacDonald Queen Anne Press, 1987)

That was how that inaugural replay played out, and you can see a video clip of the call here, courtesy of NFLFilms.NFL.com. Having the scheme work in practice was a reward for those who endured a tough vote to gain approval for replay technology in games.

The league had voted on the use of replay in early 1986. That vote and the format the first brand of instant replay in football was described in the NFL's 75 Seasons anthology, published in 1994:

In 1986, the NFL decided to test the power of the rewind button. Meeting in the spring of 1986, club owners voted 23 to 4, with one abstaining, to utilize limited instant replay to review officiating calls for the 1986 season. The device, until then just a nifty enhancement of a game telecast, literally was taken to a higher level. There would be a new man upstairs--a replay official seated in front of two television monitors.

The system concentrated on plays of possession (e.g. fumbles, receptions and muffs); those involving the sidelines, goal lines, end lines, and line of scrimmage; and cases of more than 11 players on the field for a given team.

(taken from 75 Seasons: The Complete Story of the National Football League, 1920-1995, page 266, Turner Publishing, Inc., 1994)

Not everyone was enamoured with the idea of replay. As the 75 Seasons book details, the principle of the system initially drew some powerful enemies:

One predictable complaint was that the process made the game longer and slowed tempo.

"It was a big second guess on the game," said George Young, general manager of the New York Giants. Young was a leading opponent of the system and led the movement that eventually put together enough votes to eliminate it in 1992.

(taken from 75 Seasons: The Complete Story of the National Football League, 1920-1995, page 266, Turner Publishing, Inc., 1994)

So the early format was a lot different to the one we know today. There were no challenges and real limits on what plays were subject to review.

More importantly, calls were made solely at the discretion of the officials. This led to infamous cases of replay use.

One of the more famous examples occurred in November 1989. Replay proved the decisive factor in another instalment of the classic NFL rivalry between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

The Packers' winning touchdown—a connection between quarterback Don Majkowski and wideout Sterling Sharpe on 4th down—sparked the controversy.

This play is one of the more controversial moments in the history of instant replay.

The Bears, along with likely most of the people watching the live action, believed Majkowski stepped across the line of scrimmage before firing the pass.

At first, the game officials felt the same way. That initial ruling was going to give the Bears a vital victory. Then instant replay snatched euphoria from the Bears and gave it back to the Packers.

Instant replay decides a critical game.

The call was reversed, giving the Packers the touchdown and a crucial win. The contest was later dubbed "the instant replay game" in Bears-Packers folklore.

In many ways, this game-deciding call showed the best and the worst of instant replay in the NFL. It took away the spontaneity that contributes to the emotional impact of the game.

Neither set of fans on any given Sunday can feel safe about celebrating, knowing a replay challenge is just a few seconds away. Yet supporters of replay would argue that prolonging the suspense is not only good for football as a spectacle but also necessary for the game's integrity.

They would argue that critical games have been won and lost thanks to human error—the same human error that can alter the history of the NFL.

Few people know that better than NFL fans from Houston. The old Houston Oilers learned a bitter lesson in the cost of officiating folly during the 1979 AFC Championship Game.

Coming towards the end of what was a golden period for the franchise, the Oilers were a dominant force in the AFC. The problem was they could never get past those pesky Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the 1979 AFC Championship, it actually looked like they might finally do it, especially after Mike Renfro hauled in what appeared to be a game-tying score late in the third quarter.

This controversial call became the go-to call for supporters of instant replay.

The officials said no, but television replays clearly showed the touchdown was legitimate. This play became the enduring symbol for instant-replay advocates.

It is barely even scant consolation to Oilers fans that this controversial call energized the movement for replay in the NFL. It became perfect ammunition for all those who argued that the biggest games should not be trusted to mere men.

Of course, the argument regarding technology versus human judgement is one of the great ironies of instant replay in the NFL. The two are often pitted as opposing views.

But in reality, instant replay seeks a complementary relationship between man and the machines. Where one might fail, the other is there to right a wrong before it becomes history.

That is the theory at least. But there are many detractors of instant replay who would argue the formula is redundant if human judgement is still part of the equation.

Simply put, officials can still get it wrong, even after viewing a replay screen. Mike Ditka criticized the original formula on similar grounds after what had happened to his Bears team in November 1989.

Mike Ditka criticizes the old formula for replays.

Ditka's rant reflected prevailing views of the time, and instant replay was gone by 1992. The formula was back in 1999, but this time with one significant difference.

Instead of officials deciding when to implement a replay, coaches had the right to challenge. This is the format we know today, but debate about replay has not changed and still rages.

Those in favor will point to the improvements in the system made possible by new technology. This includes high-definition images and multiple-angle tracking.

Improvements in technology have made replay a smoother process.

Instant replay's detractors will point to Week 3 of the 2012 season for proof that no matter what technology is available, it is ultimately only as good as those using it.

That is not an unreasonable point and one the current Green Bay Packers team no doubt shares. Overall though, instant replay has probably improved the game.

The ultimate call for those who argue instant replay is not needed.

In spirit at least, it is an idea developed with the right intention. Every NFL fan wants a fair game. The controversy it generates only adds to the flavour of the game.

David Wharton summed it up perfectly in a Los Angeles Times article from January 2012:

If nothing else, instant replay has become theater, fans waiting on the edge of their seats — or complaining about the delay — until the referee hands down his ruling.

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