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After 55 years, NFL takes first steps toward getting it right

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid played a pivotal role in a groundbreaking change to NFL rules

Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Something quite significant happened on Tuesday at the NFL owners meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. NFL owners have approved a rule change that will — for the first time in league history — allow penalties missed on the field to be called after being reviewed by a coaches challenge.

In addition, something that has only rarely happened — that is, a penalty called on the field reversed by a challenge replay — will become more commonplace.

As it did with last year’s changes to kickoff rules, the NFL has approved a one-year trial of new rules that will allow offensive and defensive pass interference calls to be subject to review.

There is no question about it: this is a watershed moment for the league. Let’s figure out how we got here.

John F. Kennedy Archival Images Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers

It was December 7, 1963 — barely two weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy. The annual Army-Navy football game (which Kennedy had planned to attend) was being played in Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium, which would soon be renamed JFK Stadium in honor of the late President.

During the fourth quarter, viewers watching the game on CBS saw Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh score a touchdown on a 1-yard run.

And then... they saw it again.

CBS announcer Lindsey Nelson quickly issued a disclaimer to the audience: “This is NOT live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did NOT score again.”

Instant replay had arrived.

Videotape — which unlike film, could be replayed immediately after being recorded — wasn’t exactly brand new technology, but it was still primitive. Even a dozen years later, when I had seen video replay as a viewer and also had the opportunity to operate videotape equipment little different to what was available in 1963, the idea that you could cue up a recording of just-completed sports action, then run it through a few seconds of pre-roll until the playback was stable — all before the ball was snapped for the next play — seemed impossible to me.

Arizona Cardinals v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

But CBS director Tony Verna — who had experimented with videotape during telecasts of the 1960 Rome Olympics — believed that the space between football plays was dull. Besides, as he told Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2003, “If it didn’t happen on TV, it didn’t happen.”

So he developed a system where audio tones were recorded on the videotape just as the ball was snapped, allowing the tape to easily be cued to the start of the previous play quickly and accurately. The enormous 1,200-pound machine was clunky and clanky, but it worked — eventually. That day, CBS had intended to use it for the entire game, but until Army’s fourth-quarter touchdown, it had stubbornly refused to work right.

But the public loved it.

Olympic Stadium
1st November 1969: General view of The Coliseum, the Olympic Stadium in Los Angeles, with an American Football game in progress.
Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

By the late 1960s, what soon became known as instant replay was a standard feature of sports broadcasts, and it naturally created controversy about officiating. What it usually revealed was that it was good, as referees and umpires did indeed tend to make their split-second decisions correctly in real time. But sometimes, officiating mistakes were made obvious by replay — especially after slow-motion was added to the toolboxes of the TV crews.

Even so, the public (and sports leagues) were slow to see instant replay as a way to improve the occasional officiating errors. Many reading this article — simply because they don’t remember it any other way — will find it amazing that two decades after instant replay had become commonplace, Major League Baseball would insist that “there will not be instant replay of any sort. We’re just not going to do it. The umpires making split-second decisions is part of the flavor of the game. We don’t want to lose that flavor.”

The NFL, however, was a little less concerned about the subtle flavors of their game. In 1978, the league experimented with instant replay officiating as a study during preseason games. From 1986 until 1992, the league had an official in the press box who could overturn on-field calls based on what television viewers were shown. But sometimes the official couldn’t alert the on-field officials that a replay was needed before the next play ran.

More technological innovations were on the way. On September 27, 1998, an ESPN broadcast of a Cincinnati Bengals-Baltimore Ravens game was the first to display digitally generated lines on the field of play, showing the line of scrimmage and the line of gain for a first down.

Referee #57

(I’m not going to try and explain the technical details of how THAT system works. Let’s just call it magic, shall we?)

For the first time, viewers could accurately judge whether a play represented a first down, whether a defender made contact with a receiver within the allowable distance from the line of scrimmage, or whether a quarterback passed the ball in front of the line.

By that time, broadcasters were using more cameras — even for regular-season games — and also using digital systems for instant replay, which allowed them to easily replay the video from every camera in the stadium; viewers would sometimes see five or six angles of a key play.

While these innovations still demonstrated that officiating was generally good, the natural result of viewers being able to evaluate more officiating decisions was that more of them would be seen as incorrect. The technology made it inevitable that officiating through instant replay was going to return. And in 1999 — the very next season — the NFL instituted the challenge-based replay system still in use today.

But it would be two decades before the NFL would take the next logical step.

If it becomes permanent — which it likely will after the coming season — the rule change approved by NFL owners on Tuesday will probably go down in history as taking place because of a single play: when Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman obviously hit New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived from quarterback Drew Brees on a third-down play late in the fourth quarter of last season’s NFC Championship game. It was clearly pass interference by Robey-Coleman, but no flag was thrown. If it had been, the Saints would have been in a position to win the game easily. As it was, the game went into overtime, and the Saints lost.

But that history will be incorrect. It wasn’t just that call that made this happen.

How do I know? Because the entire history of instant replay you just read was written a year ago. It was meant to be the introduction to an article I started to write about the Kansas City Chiefs’ 22-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs — a game that might have gone quite another way if the officials hadn’t erroneously called a clear sack-and-fumble forced by Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson as... uh... forward progress stopped.

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

I never finished the article, because I decided that I didn’t want to be a sore loser. “Bad calls happen,” I said to myself. “Good teams overcome them.”

I was right about that. But that doesn’t make the forward progress call against the Chiefs that day any more acceptable.

The rule change NFL owners passed on Tuesday wouldn’t have overturned that call — or many, many others that a fan of any other NFL team could name from the last 20 years. But it was the accumulated pressure from all of those bad calls — and forthright action by two of the most successful head coaches in the NFL — that ultimately caused this rule change to happen.

Going into the league meetings in Phoenix, 16 changes to NFL rules were slated to be considered. Although some of the proposals overlapped, nine of them involved some form of expansion to instant replay review. Numerous reports emanating from the league meetings in advance of Tuesday’s vote made it clear there was little support among league owners for these proposals — particularly those which would provide for any kind of non-calls to be reviewed.

So how did this happen? If reports are to be believed, it started in Monday’s coaches meeting with Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

Reid and Belichick essentially forced the other coaches — who all supported some form of replay expansion up to (and including) challenges on every officiating call — to come up with a consensus proposal they thought the owners could accept. After two more hours, they did.

But by midday Tuesday (Arrowhead Time), the owners — presented with what amounted to a revolt by their head coaches — decided to hear their case.

The owners finally accepted the rule change with a 31-1 vote. Only the Cincinnati Bengals voted no.

Thanks to Reid and Belichick’s persistence on Monday, NFL head coaches realized that the way to get league owners to approve any kind of review replay proposal was to find something all the owners could agree upon — and they did.

There wasn’t a single owner in Tuesday’s voting meeting who hadn’t seen their team fall victim to a poorly officiated pass interference penalty — or non-penalty — in the last 20 years.

Does this rule fix all the problems? No, it doesn’t. But it does open the door to a more realistic conversation about ways that replay can sensibly be expanded and improved — a conversation that NFL owners have been resisting for two decades.

Super Bowl LIII - MVP & Winning Coach Press Conference Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

“Replay is to get it right,” said commissioner Roger Goodell after the vote. “And ultimately people compromised, I think, on long-held views because they want to get the system right. They want to get the play right.”

But even if this is just the first in a long line of rules that will eventually be subject to replay challenges, we shouldn’t deceive ourselves. We’ve already watched 20 years of NFL replay challenges, and we already know that the calls will never be 100 percent right. But if we can get them closer to being right, then we’re headed down the right path.

“Will this solve every problem? Will this get us to perfect?” asked Goodell on Tuesday. “It’s the old saying, right? Don’t let perfect get in the way of better.”

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