Instant Replay : Football: NFL gives it a second look, and Tagliabue says new computerized system is huge improvement over version used in the late ‘80s.


The outcry for instant replay to return to the NFL reached a peak in last season’s playoffs when the Green Bay Packers complained that they would not have lost a wild-card game to San Francisco if officials had an opportunity to review a controversial fumble by Jerry Rice on the 49ers’ game-winning touchdown drive.

During the off-season, NFL owners decided something had to be done to get rid of the bad taste left from a couple of highly publicized erroneous calls last season.

Enter the NFL’s instant “challenge” replay, a more advanced system than the league used from 1986 to ’91.


“Our goal is to take advantage of advanced technology to create the most efficient replay system possible,” NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. “We believe we have developed that type of system. It uses advanced technology, but it is simple to operate. We did not want to bring back replay with the same system as 10 years ago.”

In the original version, neither coaches nor referees were involved. A replay official stationed upstairs decided when to stop the game to check a play and when to overturn a call made on the field. The replay official used two VCRs to review plays.

The league’s new computerized system--developed by Leitch, a Toronto-based technology company--still reviews every play, but now coaches are permitted two challenges per game, using a pager device to notify officials. In the last two minutes of each half, only the replay official can stop the game to review a questionable call.

At every game, four individuals work the replay booth: a replay official, technician, video operator and communicator. The replay assistant is the only link to the field referee, who makes the final decision on the call.

“Now, the referees make all the decisions,” said Mike Pereira, an NFL supervisor of officials. “We don’t make any decisions upstairs. I don’t think [officials] will be intimidated. We still empower them to make the decisions. I don’t think they’ll change the way they officiate. This is a great stride from where we were.”

The old replay system lasted six NFL seasons but from Day 1 it had problems. Too often, games were stopped for long periods of time to review calls and the correct decision wasn’t always reached. Officials on the field were out of the decision-making process and simply awaited word from upstairs.

In its final season in 1991, the system averaged more than three minutes per review. Of the more than 1,000 plays looked at, 90 calls were reversed. The league acknowledged 12 of those were reversed incorrectly.

By switching to digital technology, the NFL hopes it has addressed its replay delay problem. The new system--voted in only for this season--affords quicker access to replays because there is no tape to rewind.

The plays are reviewed in the replay booth with a “touch-screen monitor” that can accommodate six replay angles of a single play. Once the referee reaches a monitor on the field, he has 90 seconds to make a decision before the console is turned off automatically.

There were 61 reviews during the exhibition season, 47 brought on by coaches and 14 from replay assistants. Only 14 calls were overturned, 10 of them coaches’ challenges. The average delay was 2 minutes 29 seconds. The league’s goal is to have the average delay for reviews this season 2:20 or less.

Many coaches are still taking a wait-and-see approach to the return of replay, a system that represents a $10-million investment by the NFL.

Tampa Bay Coach Tony Dungy had a challenge call in each of the Buccaneers’ exhibition games and said he won’t pass judgment on the new system until the regular season.

“I’m just concerned about the plays that can be reviewed,” Dungy told the St. Petersburg Times. “We know that replay is not perfect, but you would at least like to get the calls replayed that need to be.”

Not all plays are subject to review. Boundary plays, catch or no catch on passing plays and other detectable infractions such as a runner ruled not down by defensive contact and the number of players on the field, are subject to review.

Pass interference, holding and other judgment calls are not.

“It’s a system that certainly is not perfect, nor was it intended to be,” said Jerry Seeman, the NFL’s senior director of officiating.

“People have to understand what the purpose of replay is. It’s a tool to help out officials in very isolated cases. . . . We would love to get every call right, but that isn’t always the case.”

If the NFL had this replay system in place last season, the Packers probably still would have lost to the 49ers because Rice’s fumble would not have been corrected.

“[Replay] would not have cured that problem at all because he was signaled down by the line judge and whistled down, and the play is over,” said Tampa Bay Buccaneer General Manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL competition committee, which spent many hours developing the rule. “So there is no fumble. People just need to realize there are going to be plays like that that are not subject to review.

“We argued about this on the committee for days. [Then-Green Bay coach] Mike Holmgren’s point was, shouldn’t we reverse the Jerry Rice fumble? It caused a team not to go to the [next round of the playoffs]. The answer is, ‘Yes, we should,’ But the comeback is, ‘We can’t.’ ”

The new system made its debut during the exhibition season and had mixed reviews, which was expected by the league.

In the first game it was used, between Tennessee and Kansas City, the digital replay system didn’t work because of a software problem. In a nationally televised game between Oakland and San Francisco, a non-fumble call was being reviewed before officials realized that under the new policy, it was not a play subject to review.

In St. Louis Coach Dick Vermeil’s first game using the buzzer, which was attached to his waist, he triggered his pager four times in the first half alone. Referee Dick Hantak almost charged the Rams with a timeout until he discovered that Vermeil set the device off every time he bent forward.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” said Holmgren, a longtime instant replay supporter. “We tried to put the best system that could get the necessary votes.”

Overall, league officials say they are happy with the new system and encouraged coaches to use it during the exhibition season.

“We did that to help get some of the bugs out,” Seeman said. “We have new technology that eventually makes for fewer errors. Once we start the season, we won’t see as many challenges. Coaches did [it in the exhibition] season to help us. We have a few little errors, but the potential is there.”

But as long as humans are involved, there will be mistakes. The new system is not designed to cure all of the NFL’s officiating woes, but if it can help correct one crucial play, instant replay might stick around longer than it did the first time.


1999 Rules of Replay

* COACHES’ CHALLENGE: Each team will be permitted two challenges per game to initiate a review before the final two minutes of each half. Each challenge will cost a team a timeout. If a challenge is upheld, the timeout will be restored, but the challenge will not. No challenges will be recognized from a team that has exhausted its timeouts.

* FINAL TWO MINUTES: After the two-minute warning of each half, and throughout overtime, any review will be initiated by the replay assistant in the replay booth in the press box. He can initiate as many reviews as he thinks necessary, no matter how many timeouts the teams may have. No timeout will be charged for a review initiated from the replay booth.

* REFEREES’ REVIEW: All replay reviews will be conducted by the referee on a field-level monitor after consultation with the other covering officials on the play. A decision will be reversed only when the referee has indisputable visual evidence that the call should be changed. The referee cannot initiate a replay.

* TIME LIMIT: Referees’ reviews are limited to 90 seconds, beginning when the referee puts on the headphones to communicate with the replay booth.

* REVIEWABLE PLAYS: The instant-replay system will cover a variety of plays in three main areas: 1) sideline, goal line, end zone, and end-line plays; 2) catch or no-catch and quarterback crossing the line of scrimmage on passing plays; and 3) other detectable infractions, such as a runner ruled down not by defensive contact, and the number of players on the field.