The History of Instant Replay in the NFL – Benefit or Detriment??

Most people will agree that all tools at your disposal should be used to provide a positive outcome. Yet when do we cross the line in overusing said tool to compound issues it was supposed to address?? One of the interesting aspects of instant replay as an officiating tool has really boiled down to determining what is or isn’t a catch.

Does the NFL need all of this to figure out instant replay??

Oh sure you’ll see a replay concerning a kick returner stepping out of bounds, or if a runner’s knee/elbow touches the ground before a fumble, or even to check the ball spot before bringing out the chains for a 1st down. Its the catch that has been scrutinized to the point where we have to ask the question: When it comes to judging a catch in the NFL has instant replay outlasted it’s usefulness??

To understand the depth of the question we have to return to the growth from its genesis.

Back in the 1970s the NFL really sped up from the 3 yard and a cloud of dust days of the 1960’s as the game evolved into a speed game. With the advent of astroturf and the full fruition of the American Football League’s drafting speed at every position became commonplace. Televising the game became more sophisticated as additional and more creative camera angles brought the viewer a more immersed experience. The game had sped up but middle aged referees had not and there were spots on the football field they couldn’t get to where a well placed camera could capture the moment.

However those camera angles and instant replay could not be used to aid an official. Fans everywhere were becoming Monday Morning quarterbacks discussing blown calls the day after with their favorite teams. The talk of replay being used as an officiating tool really began during the 15 minute delay after The Immaculate Reception and the official ruling of a touchdown in the 1972 playoffs. Even the networks began to chime in showing replay after replay where the big eye in the sky told a different tale than what officials called on the field. Yet it took two huge blown calls in playoff competition that brought the issue to the rule makers.

The first occurred at the goal line in the 2nd quarter of the 1977 AFC Championship Game. The defending Super Bowl champion Raiders were down 7-3 and in need of a defensive play as Denver sat poised at the Raider 2 yard line…and then:

Denver seized the momentum on the very next play as you saw taking a 14-3 lead. They went on to dethrone the Raiders 20-17 and move on to Super Bowl XII. The buzz after the game centered on the cruel twist of fate dealt the Raiders on the blown call when Tatum hit Lytle. Grumbling from the Raider organization was met with sentiment by NBC broadcaster Dick Enberg repeating clearly the refs blew the call.

The talk hadn’t died down two years later when another play altered the course of NFL history. We had a new rivalry make it to the national level between the perennial champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Oilers. Pittsburgh beat them in the 1978 AFC Championship 34-5. It was not even close. However in the ’79 AFC Championship Game they were embroiled in a dogfight. With the Steelers up 17-10 and the Oilers driving late in the 3rd quarter, Dan Pastorini lofted a pass for Mike Renfro when…

The argument to institute replay as an officiating tool went into overdrive as this play cast a pall over most of the time leading up to Super Bowl XIV and beyond. Yet it took 6 years before the NFL would vote replay in as an officiating tool. So going into the 1986 season how long was it before it had an affect. Try just 3 plays!! The defending champion Chicago Bears were hosting the Cleveland Browns in the opener when the 1st instant replay touchdown happened:

So Browns Safety Al Gross was the 1st NFL player to score a touchdown based on a decision by instant replay. In this instance it worked. When replay is concerning the spot of the ball, or whether a player was in-bounds before sliding out of bounds recovering a fumble, or whether a receiver had 2 feet in, replay is a critical tool for officiating crews to get it right. Yet when it comes to the catch itself replay has now become the problem.

Fast forward to the catch/non catch of Dez Bryant in the 2014 playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. In the waning moments down 26-21 and facing a 4th down, Romo lofted a pass toward Dez Bryant when apparently he caught the ball and it would be 1st and goal. Once the Packers challenged the play the controversy began.

What we received was a poor carrying out of the rule as it was written. This rule was adjusted after the 1999 NFC Championship Game when Bert Emanuel caught an apparent pass late in the game and the tip of the ball touched the ground. This was a diving play and the ball hitting the ground in the middle of the catch. We didn’t see that on the play with Bryant.

During Bryant’s catch, had he been in the middle of the field caught the ball and been hit after two steps, it would be a catch and fumble meaning he had possession. So now he catches the ball, rotates his body, cradles the football with one hand, takes several steps and dives for the goal line and the explanation was he hadn’t made a football move. This was and should have been ruled a catch once he took the two steps with no bobble of the football. Not the diving catch that the rule was written for.

This event altered the course of NFL history and forever doomed the legacy of Tony Romo and a team that could have made the Super Bowl. Yet we have to move on…

We have to quit with the Zapruder Film reenactment every time we need to review a catch with instant replay. The Chancellor of Football says we need to interpret the rules as players, coaches, and refs always have and get away from the Bob Costas wannabe lawyer types who muck this up every time a reception is discussed.

  • What is a catch? A forward pass thrown from one offensive player to another and the recipient possesses the ball.
  • A reception and possession of the ball takes place once the receiver secures it and takes two steps, goes out of bounds, or immediately tackled or touched down once their knee, elbow, or ass hits the ground.
  • Possession of the ball is securely controlling the ball with one hand or two.

That is it!! That is a catch and the rest should be left to the judgment of an official. Back during John Madden’s early years in the broadcast booth, NFL Director of Officiating Art McNally explained a Jerome Barkum touchdown by stating “One knee equals two feet.” Which translates to the play was over once the receiver was ruled down and in this instance he only had one knee in while sliding out of the endzone with a reception.

The NFL needs to get away from this stupid notion someone somewhere brought up about reviewing the receiver having possession after the play has already been called down or out of bounds. Possession the instant a play is whistled dead is over! Who cares if he bobbles it 11 feet out of bounds sliding into a table of gatorade?? Once we remove this excess from replay it will remain an effective tool. You don’t need a panel of 72″ screens and a committee to determine a catch!!

Dedicated to my late brother Michael Vincent Rojas if he were here we would still be arguing Bert Emanuel’s catch/no catch from the 1999 NFC Championship Game.

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NFL Playoffs & Historically Bad Calls

For the second time in the 2014 post season, the NFL has everyone talking about what should not be. The games have been marred with questionable calls and bad officiating at the critical juncture of two games. It has overshadowed some very good football games and for all of us long term purists and historians, given us much to banter about for years to come.

Dez Bryant catchLast week on my social media things took off with the interference/ non interference call between Dallas LB Anthony Hitchens and Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew. The controversy didn’t begin until the refs picked up the flag reversing their call. In truth the ref should have either explained the reason the flag was being picked up or not to have thrown the flag in the first place.

Now we fast forward to yesterday’s NFC Divisional between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. In the waning moments down 26-21 and facing a 4th down, Romo lofted a pass toward Dez Bryant when apparently he caught the ball and it would be 1st and goal. Once the Packers challenged the play the controversy began.

What we received was a poor carrying out of the rule was as it was written. This rule was adjusted after the 1999 NFC Championship Game when Bert Emanuel caught an apparent pass late in the game and the tip of the ball touched the ground. This was a diving play and the ball hitting the ground in the middle of the catch. We didn’t see that on the play with Bryant.

During Bryant’s catch, had he been in the middle of the field caught the ball and been hit after two steps, it would be a catch and fumble meaning he had possession. So now he catches the ball, rotates his body, cradles the football with one hand, takes several steps and dives for the goal line and the explanation is he hadn’t made a football move. This was and should have been ruled a catch once he took the two steps with no bobble of the football. Not the diving catch that the rule was written for.

As The Chancellor of Football I said it at the time… this was the worst call in NFL playoff history and changes are coming. Yet you do realize the instant replay that robbed Dallas of this game was borne from bad referee calls in playoff games prior. The first comes from 1972 when the Steelers faced the Raiders when the nonexplainable happened to the naked eye with :22 to go.

Since it was such a bang – bang play the officials had to confer and did so for more than 5 minutes before they signaled touchdown. Don’t tell me feelings don’t linger. John Madden refused to be interviewed for A Football Life – The Immaculate Reception citing for years the Raiders were cheated in that playoff game. At the time a ball couldn’t bounce from an offensive player to another without a defender in between. A hail mary could not be thrown back then…but had the ball hit Fuqua or Tatum of the Raiders??

“Why can’t the referee watch the replay on television?” became a cry from fans at the time. It seemed blasphemous to NFL rule makers to aid the officials in getting it right. It would be taking it out of the refs hands…the human element would be removed from officiating was the sentiment maintained by the league.

Those same Oakland Raiders found themselves in the same position in the 1977 AFC Championship in Denver. With the Broncos maintaining a 7-3 lead, they were poised to take a commanding lead over the defending Super Bowl champions. From the 1 they had a 1st and goal when Craig Morton turned and handed the ball to the late Rob Lytle when

Sentiment started to lean toward fans who clearly saw Lytle fumble. Just because the referee didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Talk after the game centered on the nun fumble call from the Raider locker room to fans across the country. The Raiders would have seized the momentum.

This touched off a brutal rivalry that lasted for most of the 70s where Pittsburgh became Team of the Decade. As the rivalry began to subside with Oakland, a new one emerged with division rival Houston. Pittsburgh beat them in the 1978 AFC Championship 34-5. It was not even close. However in the ’79 AFC Championship Game they were embroiled in a dogfight. With the Steelers up 17-10 and the Oilers driving late in the 3rd quarter, Dan Pastorini lofted a pass for Mike Renfro when…

Sentiment finally came full circle when the refs admitted to the blown call in private but the company line was towed publicly. So the same as they can parade out the official’s brass to explain a terrible interpretation of the rules, I know better. Six years later instant replay was instituted in the NFL.

Just like “The Tuck” rule in 2001 and the Bennie Barnes “incidental contact interference call in Super Bowl XIII, the referee would have been better served calling it to the spirit of what he saw. Deal with the rule book interpretation later. The ref knew Brady wasn’t throwing that football…call it that way. The ref knew that Bennie Barnes and Lynn Swann tripped over each other looking for the football…call it that way.

However several seasons had been ruined by terrible calls that instant replay could have helped but in this instance it worked against. Had I been the referee I would have called it in the spirit of the play. I keep hearing folks talk about the letter of the law as though it’s black and white. Once you leave the field its too late, stick to the spirit of the game and what you saw.

The Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys could have become back to back champions. The Steeler dynasty may never have taken off totally and or it could have ended with 3 Super Bowl victories had the Oilers seized the momentum. Now we don’t get to see if the Cowboys could go up and dethrone the Seattle Seahawks as we have argued on social media for weeks.

The other elephant in the room is the NFL not only needs to move to full time referees, they need to have complete officiating crews work these games. Not all star crews. If the best teams make the playoffs have the best team of officials calling it.  We wouldn’t have had the nonsense of refs not explaining their actions in Dallas and yesterday could have been different as well. Dez Bryant’s catch was nothing like Bert Emanuel’s diving catch in the ’99 NFC Title Game.

Get ready for more change…

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