What the NFL Could Learn From College Challenge Rules

Chaz MattsonAnalyst INovember 10, 2008

"You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one"

                 - John Lennon, Imagine

The tool of instant replay in football has gone from being a rookie, to seasoned old vet.  Instant replay in the NFL was originally implemented in the 1986 season on a limited basis.  It has however evolved since that time to keep pace with the demand of a better replay system.  At this point however, there is something the NFL game could learn from the college game.   

The NFL has long looked at college football as a template for the professional rules.  College football and professional football are not the same entity, nor should they ever try to be.  It should be alright for them to learn a thing or two from one another once in a while. 

Currently there is a key fundamental area where college football gets it right and professional football gets it wrong.  That is the area of the challenge rules.

Something the NFL should take to heart with its approach to the replay system is that maybe they don’t have the best solution in place yet. 

Currently if a team thinks it should challenge a play they do so at the risk of losing a timeout, unless it falls inside the final two minutes of a half.  Moreover, there are some situations where the number of disputed calls that should be reviewed could exceed the total number of maximum challenges allowed.  In college if there is a play that should be reviewed it is looked at without any consequence to either team.

In Sunday afternoon’s NFL match-up between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers, there was a huge mistake by the referees that could have cost Kansas City a shot at more points.  The Chiefs were driving for a game tying touchdown when a series of plays showed how weak the officiating in the NFL can be at one of the most crucial points in a tight game.  Kansas City had two pass plays that were tight with regard to the receiver making a catch with both feet down. 

The first play was reviewed since it occurred just inside of two minutes.  What was originally ruled a catch, replay over turned.  This was done just inside of two minutes so it was at the referee crew’s discretion.  It was the correct thing to review this play since it was very close. 

The second play occurred shortly after that one.  TV replay showed it probably was a catch however the officials did not stop the game when they should have to review the play.  The result could have put Kansas City deep inside of Chargers territory near the 10-yard line.  There was about a minute and a half left on the clock at this point. 

Fortunately for Kansas City they converted on a crucial fourth down pass when quarterback Tyler Thigpen threw a bullet to connect with his primary receiver.  The receiver caught the ball falling to the ground where his hands were securely under the ball.  This play was reviewed at the referee’s own discretion. 

What all of this clearly indicates is that the referees were not managing this game well or fair near the end of the game.  The play did hold up as a catch.  A few plays later, a throw near the goal line to Tony Gonzales drew a flag as a slightly early hit for the San Diego DB warranted pass interference.  Kansas City eventually scored a touchdown and lost because they went for a two point conversion.  

The overall issue here is the inconsistency of the refereeing when they do have an opportunity to make a correct call or reverse an incorrect ruling.  These types of poor decision making should not be tolerated at this level.  However, as recently as yesterday it is the current status-quo with regard to the referees in the top professional league on the planet.

Conversely a case in point on how college gets the use of replay correctly happened a week ago in the Texas–Texas Tech game in Lubbock, TX.  With 12 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Longhorns had just been ignited on a 37-yard touchdown from Colt McCoy to Malcolm Williams.  This narrowed the score to 29-19 in favor of Texas Tech.  The Longhorns chose to go for two in hopes of narrowing the margin to eight points. 

On the conversion McCoy threw a pass over the middle that was incomplete and the receiver was double teamed and technically interfered with.  The back judge threw a flag for pass interference against the Red Raiders. 

The sideline of Texas Tech became a little animated and asked for a replay as they were claiming the ball had been tipped.  Replay showed the ball had been tipped so there was no pass interference on the play.  Texas Tech may have caught a break on the tipped pass, but the bottom line is the correct procedure was in place. 

The shining piece of this example is the fact that the college referees actually followed protocol 100 percent to get the call exactly right.  The flag was thrown on PI, but overruled by a simple review.  This makes calls 100 percent consistent when procedures are following protocol correctly.

The real beauty that comes out of this call is the fact that all Tech coach Mike Leach had to do was state he thought the call was wrong and that it should be reviewed.  Replay showed a tipped pass on a play where a penalty occurred.  While you could challenge the tip in the NFL, you could not challenge the validity of a penalty. 

Being able to get a call like this right is important, but it was the fact that it was routine at the college level, in a game that had a No.1 and No.7 team doing battle.  In other words this is as tough as it gets on a referee and yet the call was handled with precision, calm, and tact.

These might serve as just a couple examples, however they are indicative of how inconsistent the NFL officiating can be especially when comparing them to the college level. 

Moreover, the college model shows a way to correct issues of controversy that occurs in games from time to time.  The elements the NFL should look into with more detail are the consistency of calls being made, the procedure and logic path that is followed, what role teams and officials play in getting to replay situations. 

Originally when replay came to the NFL in 1986 it was on a limited basis and part of the reason it was limited was political so the referees wouldn’t be put in situations that made them look bad or incompetent.  The evolution of replay within the NFL rules has come a long way; it just appears right now as though it still has a ways to go.