Dec 24, 2017; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay (23) reacts to officials as he is called out of bounds on an interception against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium

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NFL instant replay is broken, and that should scare fans

Seth Dunlap
December 26, 2017 - 7:55 pm
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NFL instant replay is broken.  The man who helped break it is still in charge, and that should scare the daylights out of every football fan.

Controversial officiating in big football games is as American as apple pie.  Yet usually those gripes come down to split-second judgement calls by humans on the field.   Those humans can make mistakes, like we all do.  We complain, gnash some teeth, vent our frustrations on sports talk radio and move on.  Human error is part of the game. 

The NFL has tried its best to minimize the potential for error with the implementation, and refinement, of instant replay.  The system was designed as a failsafe on critical, game changing plays.  That failsafe is now broke, and its credibility has been tarnished to a possible point of no return. 

All NFL replay reviews are now handled remotely out of their New York command center, with league officiating czar Al Riveron having the final, and sole, power to decide what calls are upheld and which are overturned.  It’s a system that I’ve argued previously is ripe for corruption. 

Nowhere else in our society do we think that one person should have absolute power without proper checks and balances.   The president has Congress and the judicial branch.  Your company CEO has a board of directors.  Heck, even Rodger Goodell’s once-vast powers have been limited in scope after backlash by players, fans and some owners. 

Yet that’s what we have with Riveron.  He, and he alone, has the power to decide who benefits from replay.  To state the obvious, Riveron is also human.  He is also subject to human error, and biases.  Without trying to go too far, please imagine Riveron sitting in New York City looking at a replay of a New Orleans Saints touchdown in the upcoming Super Bowl where they are playing the New England Patriots.  That’s one small-market franchise, one that’s also been the frequent subject of league investigations and discipline in the last decade, playing against a franchise that’s become an indispensable face the league.  If you don’t think there would be pressure, internally and externally, on Riveron to rule that replay in favor of the Patriots you are fooling yourself. 

Again, I’ve been arguing this for years, going back to when Dean Blandino, a high profile family friend of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, was in Riveron’s position.  This wasn’t about the men in the job.  It’s about the system that is ripe for corruption.

Now, that system is coming under major fire from prominent voices nationally after a series of botched replay reviews this season.  It’s a major problem, one that is threatening to overshadow the league’s high profile playoffs that commence in less than two weeks. 

The latest head scratcher happened on Sunday when the perennially moribund Buffalo Bills were taking on the Patriots in Foxboro.   Game officials had ruled that Bills’ wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had caught a fire half touchdown pass, dragging his feet inbounds and maintaining possession through the catch.   The play went to review, and as we know that means it was sent straight to Riveron and his staff in New York.   I have watched that replay now dozens of times.  There was no evidence that Benjamin didn’t make that catch, or drag his toes.  You could even see some stuff apparently flying up behind where he would have been dragging his feet.   Could you make an argument that Benjamin’s feet never touched the ground and that that was actually a complete catch?  Sure, you could argue that I suppose.  But the actual video evidence wouldn’t be on your side.  In fact the NFL replay system is designed, like we’ve heard countless times over the years, that a call won’t be overturned without irrefutable evidence.  This was about as far from irrefutable as you can get. 

Yet three minutes later the game official comes back and says the catch was overturned and it was an incomplete pass.  It defied credibility.

Amazingly this comes just a week after another highly controversial replay review went in the Patriots favor.  Riveron overturned a Steelers touchdown catch in the final minutes of their pivotal game, a call which may have been right but was still controversial at best. 

But wait, earlier in the year there was yet another head-scratcher involving the Patriots.  New York Jets tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins was initially ruled to have caught a touchdown pass late in their game.  One more review sent to Riveron in New York, and one more highly controversial overturn that favored the Patriots.

To be fair to Riveron, it’s certainly not just Patriots games where he seems to be terribly out of his depths.  A Golden Tate touchdown for the Lions was overturned earlier in the year, causing most of the sports world to give a collective, “WTF?” that night.   That play was actually a sign of things to come from Riveron and the NFL officiating offices.   The play was ruled a touchdown, and while reasonable minds could agree on if Tate actually scored before he crossed into the end zone there certainly wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call.  Not even close.  Yet that’s what happened.  The Lions’ opponent that game?  Atlanta, the reigning NFC champions.

Most people wrote it off to a one-off snafu that we wouldn’t see very often in the highly scrutinized world of NFL officiating.  We were wrong. 

Rodger Goodell and the NFL must figure out how to fix this broken system, and do so immediately.  I agree with Peter King, who today said Goodell should call Riveron into his offices and tell him to stop playing God. The league needs to go a step further and institute a full committee of former NFL officials to work with Riveron when looking at these replays.  It should be a group of voices deciding these critical calls, not just one.

The NFL needs to do this now.  The integrity of the NFL and its upcoming playoffs depends on a fair and transparent replay review system.  Currently we aren’t getting anything close to that.

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