It’s week 15 of the 2015 season. The Bills are hosting the Eagles in what amounts to a must-win game. With the game tied at 20 late in the fourth quarter, Philadelphia faces a third-and-three from its own 41-yard line. As QB Sam Bradford drops back to throw, WR Josh Huff runs a shallow crossing route and collides with Buffalo safety Corey Graham. That contact frees up TE Zach Ertz, who turns a short pass from Bradford into a 41-yard reception.
Both live and on replay, Huff’s move looks like an illegal pick play—offensive pass interference, which comes with a 15-yard penalty, but there is no flag thrown. The Eagles kick a go-ahead field goal shortly thereafter and eventually win the game, 23–20.
“Our vantage point on the sideline, looked like the guy clearly picked our guy,” Buffalo coach Rex Ryan said afterward, “but obviously we weren’t there on their sideline where it happened. They bring one guy in and all he does is block. You’re always going to have calls you disagree with.”
What if Ryan could have done something about this particular call, though? Under CFL rules he would have the opportunity.
Since 2014 coaches north of the border have had the ability to challenge defensive pass interference. This season, the rules expanded to allow replay challenges on offensive pass interference, too, as well as a long list of other infractions: illegal contact, roughing the passer, roughing the kicker and illegal blocks on kick plays.
“The types of penalties we allow coaches to challenge are game-impacting plays, it’s not a holding call or an offside call,” says Glen Johnson, CFL VP of officiating. “If we punt and the kicker gets roughed and we miss it, that’s the difference between giving up the ball and getting it back and getting a first down. These are impactful plays. It’s not like we want them to challenge everything we want the ability to challenge game-changing plays.”
The expanded replay rules played a significant role in last season’s CFL championship, the Grey Cup. The Edmonton Eskimos trailed Ottawa Redblacks by two in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter when the Eskimos challenged following an incomplete pass. After a review, they were granted a 37-yard pass interference call, which set up the game-winning touchdown.
“Had we not had the ability to challenge that and change it, it would have been a really bad missed call that may have put the Grey Cup in the other dressing room,” Johnson says. “We had the ability to fix it and that’s what it was for.”
Ottawa also was involved in one of the first offensive pass interference challenges early this season. In it, the Redblacks had a 21-yard touchdown wiped off the board because a receiver away from the play made contact with a defender, knocking him to the ground.
Several NFL coaches have voiced their desire for expanded replay, but pass interference has not been part of that focus. A rule proposal pitched by the Ravens this past off-season asked for challenges to be allowed on anything aside from “judgment calls.” Pass interference, holding, illegal contact, illegal use of hands, unsportsmanlike conduct and whether a kicker, defenseless receiver or forward passer had been “forcibly contacted” all would have remained non-reviewable.
The Ravens eventually withdrew that proposal, but the central idea behind it will not go away anytime soon: The NFL and its officials should take better advantage of the vast technology available during games.
The CFL went a step farther this season, with the league’s Board of Governors approving use of what’s called an “eye in the sky.” Replays—those brought on by challenges and plays automatically reviewed—are handled via a central command center in Toronto. As of 2016, the command center also now includes a video official responsible for weighing in on plays not covered by in-game challenges.
“We have a video official connected via headset to officials helping with administration: where the ball was, where a foul occurred, correct numbers for players [who committed penalties], fixing spots where a ball became dead,” Johnson says. “This guy can help him out and say, ’Hey the spot’s two yards up.’
“Another thing they can do is help assess penalties that were called that were incorrect, so they can help pick up a flag. We get a quick look at it, he says a guy’s not offsides, we can pick up the flag. The quality of the officiating is better, but not a lot of people see the external impact of it. It’s not like they’re actively part of the process, they’re part of the process behind the scenes.”
The NFL actually added a similar adjustment to its rule book this year. Part of Rule 15, Section 2 states: “The Replay Official and designated members of the Officiating department at the League office may consult with the on-field officials to provide information on the correct application of playing rules, including appropriate assessment of penalty yardage, proper down, and status of the game clock.”
There were multiple instances last season where such an assist could have come in handy. During a Steelers-Chargers Monday night game, 18 seconds erroneously came off the clock in the fourth quarter—a mistake that was not fixed in-game but that the NFL later admitted to making. The video official as the CFL utilizes it also, in theory, could have weighed in during the controversial ending to Seattle’s 2015 win over Detroit, in which the league said the Seahawks should have been penalized for illegal batting on a Calvin Johnson fumble.
It’s no coincidence that there are increasing similarities in the CFL and NFL review processes. Prior to this season the two leagues entered into a partnership whereby four NFL officials took part in the CFL’s training camp and preseason schedules. Three CFL officials then reversed the trip once NFL camps opened.
“It’s hard for us to practice,” Johnson says. “A quarterback can get a few receivers and go out and practice for awhile ... so this is really just about more reps, more snaps. The other benefit is trading best practices—you can exchange documents, look at film, but until you’re right in it, it’s hard to get a complete feel for it.”
Expect the partnership to remain in place for 2017.
“The collaboration with the CFL was very beneficial for us,” says Dean Blandino, NFL head of officiating, via email. “The feedback from our officials that took part—and they were all newer NFL officials—was what we anticipated: The reps they received helped in their development. ... It was a very successful partnership for us in the first year.”
A similarly positive response from CFL coaches and players towards the expanded replay and challenge system could nudge the NFL toward adopting even more updates on its end.
That said, there are two factors that always come up in this discussion: 1. The so-called “human element” of officiating, and 2. speed of play. Fans may be more used to hearing the former topic tied to baseball, specifically to the strike zone. But it’s part of the consideration for the NFL, as well. While Johnson says that the replay command center brings greater consistency to reviewed calls because it eliminates variations from ref to ref in-stadium, not everything is as simple as taking a second glance.
In April 2015 Giants owner John Mara, a member of the NFL’s competition committee, told SiriusXM NFL that the committee had been shown a series of potential helmet-to-helmet calls and asked to reach a verdict.
“We looked at tape at every single one of those plays,” Mara said. “And I will tell you of all of them, there were very few, maybe a handful, where as a committee—and there are nine of us on that committee—where we were unanimous on it. We were always split, on whether it was helmet-to-helmet, shoulder-to-helmet, whether the head was not involved at all. ... It is not as clear-cut as you would think.”
In that way certain infractions almost lend themselves toward being judgment calls, or at least that’s part of the argument against expanding the NFL’s replay system.
As for pace of play, well ... there’s only so much to be done if additional plays are added to the review ledger. The CFL tries to complete all of its reviews within a 90-second window, but there currently is no consequence for going over—the video monitors don’t shut off after that elapsed time or anything. It also has tried to encourage its replay officials to be as definitive as possible as quickly as possible.
“If an official could have made a decision on the first two angles that were very clear, we don’t need to wait and see the other three,” Johnson says. “Sometimes that happens. ... We just keep working very hard to try to make it the most expedited process. But the whole point is to change something to get it right, so what if we rush them and then they make a mistake? How long is too long?”
It’s a work in progress, on both sides of the border. The level of technology available to both the CFL and NFL is enormous, though, so why not utilize it to eliminate as many on-field errors as possible?
The CFL is trying. Will the NFL continue to follow suit?