As most football fans know, the referees have been the most widely-discussed topic of the NFL preseason. Unfortunately, all of the focus on the lockout has shifted attention away from another issue, a rule change that will impact the future of the NFL long after this labor dispute ends.
The league decided at the March owners' meeting that all turnovers will now automatically be reviewed by the booth, and no longer via coaches' challenges. This is essentially the same rule that was instituted last year with regard to scoring plays.
To some extent, the increasing of booth reviews is an admission that the system built around coaches' challenges isn't working. With the new rules in place, the number of challenges dropped from 249 in the 2010 regular season to 209 in 2011.* With turnovers now automatically reviewed, that number is sure to drop again in 2012. This implies that the league and its owners liked the effects of putting more replays in the hands of the officials and keeping more red flags in the coaches' holsters.
With so many of the game's most critical plays now reviewed automatically, it's actually time to eliminate the coaches' challenge from the game outright.
That's right; I am officially challenging the challenge system.
The problems with coaches' challenges
There are several limitations with the coach challenge system, ranging from the coaches' collective inability to reverse many calls anyway, reluctance to pull the trigger on challenges, a continuing failure to understand the rules in the first place and the fact that many of the plays falling under the umbrella of reviewability come down to mere guesswork.
Some coaches, frankly, could stand to be saved from themselves. Marvin Lewis has guided the Bengals to just two playoff games over the last six seasons and bungled away two replay challenges early in both of them. Tom Coughlin, who has actually been decent with the flag over his tenure, won a challenge in Week 2 last season, and then lost eight challenges in a row over his next 16 games. Just 13 teams overturned more than 50 percent of their challenges last year.
On the other end of the spectrum, some teams don't challenge hardly enough because of the risk involved. Miami challenged just one call the entire 2011 season, either because nothing interesting happened in any of the Dolphins' games (actually, let's not rule that possibility out) or because Tony Sparano and Todd Bowles were both too worried about the risk involved.
There shouldn't be any risk involved in arriving at the correct call in an NFL game. The most important thing should be to get the call correct, rather than forcing coaches like Lewis and Sparano to weigh the pros and cons of throwing a flag. And with more cameras, better technology and more revenue at stake than ever could have been imagined when replay was reintroduced in 1999, it seems outdated to penalize head coaches for wanting to take a quick peek at the footage. Shifting the discretion from coaches to officials is the safest way to ensure that bad calls get reversed more frequently.
Additionally, some coaches still struggle to understand what plays are reviewable in the first place. Most refs could fit a booth review inside the time it takes to explain to a coach which aspects of a play are or aren't reviewable. This is the same argument made by baseball fans who believe umpires should spend time reviewing plays instead of shouting with managers.
Finally, it's virtually impossible in most cases that the coach even knows when to challenge on his own. In almost every case, the coach is either guessing (like with any boundary call involving the far sideline) or relying on somebody in a coaches box to tell him to challenge. Essentially, teams are already relying on instant replays throughout the game to decide if they want to challenge. Just end the charade and give refs a chance to decide if they need another look.
Concerns with removing the challenge
Putting instant replay entirely in the officials' hands would definitely elicit anxiety from some fans, who would worry that the refs won't review all of the plays they should. Pessimists are already getting headaches envisioning their team's coach slamming his headset into an aluminum bench, screaming that a ref won't check the tape.
First, the rules around scoring plays and turnovers already ensure that the most important plays would be reviewed. Second, the data indicates that referees would err on the side of reviewing a questionable play.
Let's go back to that 2010 regular season, before scores triggered automatic reviews throughout the games. Out of 357 total replay reviews, 108 were initiated by the replay booth. Roughly 30 percent of all challenges took place during the relatively narrow sliver of time that officials call for reviews.
The data is skewed slightly because of coaches scared to risk a timeout, or electing to save challenges for the critical junctures of the game. But still, a much greater majority of all plays worth challenging should take place outside of the booth review window. This shows that officials -- either by instinct or instruction -- show a willingness to review plays.
The history of the replay challenge
As the replay rules evolve, it's interesting to look back at the original intention of reintroducing replay to the NFL. This 1999 article from Sports Illustrated has a foreboding quote from Mike Holmgren, who said, "It's not likely we're going to challenge something in the middle of the field in the second quarter. If someone tells me our receiver was in on a 10-yard play on which he was ruled out in the second quarter, I'd probably let it go. But if it's something that can get us points, then we'd challenge."
Of course, with the changes made more than a decade later, those would be the only types of calls a coach could challenge.
Holmgren was in an interesting position to speak on the matter, as not just co-chairman of the competition committee, but a victim of a blown call that cost him a playoff game the previous season.
The drive that famously finished with Terrell Owens' brilliant catch at the goal line should have ended on a Jerry Rice fumble. Instead, Brett Favre and his teammates spent the next day packing up their lockers. Yet even the man burned by a bad call understood that the only types of calls coaches can challenge this upcoming season aren't the purpose of utilizing instant replay.
Another interesting point within that article is that then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue divulges that the existence of booth reviews turned out to be the key point for many longtime opponents of replay to finally come around on the issue.
Even then, owners knew that officials should be responsible for making review decisions during the most important parts of the game. Nearly 15 years later, the league has increased the officials' jurisdiction to include the most important plays of the game, no matter when they occur. The NFL ought to recognize this trend and put refs in charge of replay reviews for the whole game.
It's time to overturn the coaches' challenge system.
My red flag is officially on the field.
*All data in this article comes from the NFL's Game Statistic and Information System.