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It’s time for the NFL to rethink how it uses replay

Super Bowl LVII - Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Much of the postgame attention of Super Bowl LVII was focused on a controversial defensive holding call against James Bradberry that allowed the Chiefs to run out the clock and kick the game winning field goal.

I personally didn’t agree agree with the call. I’ve seen officials let that degree of contact go in situations with far less on the line.

By the letter of the law, I could see why the call would be made. Many of you agree with me. Many of you disagree with me.

I’m not here to debate the merits of that particular call. Something bigger stood out to me.

Twice in the game there were lengthy reviews to determine whether a catch would stand or be changed to incomplete. Yet on the most important play of the game, there was no way to utilize replay.

The current version of instant replay enters its 25th season in 2023. When the challenge system was introduced in 1999, the rules made sense for their time. We have seen tweaks through the years. However, I would argue the road we have taken does not make the most efficient use of the technology the league has it its disposal. We also have been left in a place where the tool of replay cannot be utilized in critical moments.

I would like to see the NFL reimagine replay. Here are a few suggestions.

Formally make the sky judge (or sky judges) an official part of the officiating crew

The NFL has informally experimented with adding an extra official not on the field who can communicate with the on field crew to quickly fix missed calls. The league hasn’t fully committed to the concept, however. It is used infrequently and inconsistently.

I say it is time to formalize the sky judge as part of the officiating crew. There is plenty of time between plays. You can have one or more person looking at the various angles of the previous plays and communicating what they see to the officials.

Cut down on stoppages of play

For replay to be utilized currently, the action on the field has to be stopped. Either a coach has to challenge, or the booth has to initiate a review after a scoring play, a change of possession, or a close call in the final two minutes of a half (or overtime). With a sky judge around, there would be less of a need for needless stoppages on obvious calls. You could retain the ability for coaches to challenge as a failsafe, and the play could be stopped for a closer look on really close calls. But there’s no reason to disrupt the flow of the game as frequently as reviews do now.

When play must be stopped, put a limit on the amount of time it takes

My overall view of replay is that it exists to prevent an egregious call from impacting the outcome of a game. I think too frequently we see time wasted litigating calls that just aren't that important. Take the two long reviews in the Super Bowl.

I’m all for getting it right in critical spots. I don’t think there should be any limits on a review for a scoring play, a change of possession, or something that happens in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or any point in overtime. Heck, you could even talk me into extending it to the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.

Outside of these situations, however, I do think there should be a limit to the amount of time a replay can consume. In 1999 the original rules put a 90 second cap on any review. The rule was never enforced. I think that should be the hard cutoff for any review in these non critical situations.

If that sounds extreme, just consider that a call is only supposed to be overturned if there is indisputable video evidence. If you still can't tell after a minute and a half of watching different angles, is it really indisputable? Do we need to rewind a bobble 20 times frame by frame to decide between a catch and an incompletion? I say no.

Make everything reviewable

Now that we’ve got the sky judge, there really shouldn’t be a limit to what can be overturned on video review. Again I argue the point of replay is to prevent egregious calls from impacting the outcome. If there’s a bad penalty call late in the fourth quarter, why can’t it be looked at?

We can maintain the standard that a call can only be overturned if there is indisputable video evidence. Ironically by that standard I don't think the Bradberry holding would be overturned. Still, it would be nice if the most important play of the game could be scrutinized half as much as a couple of far less significant catches.

And genuinely egregious missed calls like the non-pass interference by the Rams against the Saints four years ago in the NFC Championship Game surely would have been overturned.

Simplify the definition of a catch

Figuring out what constitutes a catch shouldn’t require a PhD. The league doesn’t need twenty different standards depending on whether a player is diving vs. being tackled vs. in the end zone vs. near the sideline vs. any other scenario.

There are a bunch of different possibilities. Just come up with something that makes it easier to understand and easier to call. Again we shouldn’t need to wind and rewind frame by frame twenty times and still not know what we are looking for.

Put a microphone on every official and allow their conversations to be broadcast

The sky judge was originally instituted by the short lived spring league, the Alliance of American Football. While that league was infamous for chronic mismanagement, they did make some very interesting officiating innovations.

Beyond the sky judge, they did what I just suggested.

You can make the best reforms imaginable. There still will be missed calls. There can be greater transparency, though. Officials will be accountable if their words are broadcast. And at the very least we will have less conspiracy theories about why certain calls were made.