Inside the NFL’s Replay Command Center

Tuesday November 11th, 2014

NEW YORK — The digital clock on the wall inside the officiating bunker at the NFL offices in Manhattan reads 16:25:15, or 4:25 p.m. on the East Coast. “Kickoff in Oakland,” says Austin Moss, the replay technician at the station monitoring the Cardinals-Raiders game. The upper-left 27-inch high-definition screen, one of four in front of Moss, shows Arizona kicker Chandler Catanzaro booting the opening kickoff into the end zone.

If you’re not careful, or you’re over-caffeinated, you can easily suffer sensory overload in this room, especially in the early window. On this Week 7 Sunday there were eight 1 p.m. ET kickoffs. But even in the late window, with only three games coming at you inside the room, it’s harried. Standing in the center, staring at the large split-screen monitor showing all three games, is the NFL’s vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino, dressed in khakis, a blue striped oxford shirt and blue sweater. To his left: Alberto Riveron, the number two man in the officiating department. They’re the adjudicators on this day—the two men in charge of the new system of replay checks-and-balances.

This room is called Art McNally GameDay Central, in honor of the longtime official and officiating executive. But on Sunday it’s Replay Central. In this space, 42 feet long and 36 feet wide, Blandino and Riveron ride herd on the first-year replay system and consult with referees on the field and replay officials in far-off stadium replay booths for every review in every NFL game.

The empty command center. (Courtesy NFL) The empty command center. (Courtesy NFL)

The system was put in place to minimize the inconsistency in replay reviews, and to reduce the time the average review takes. While the referee on site is going through the preliminary mechanics of the replay process—checking for the challenge flag, communicating with the flag-throwing coach, announcing to the crowd and the television audience why the play is being reviewed and hustling to get under the replay hood on the sideline—Blandino can look at the replays and line up the one or two or three most applicable. That way, the ref on the field will be able to watch the relevant replays without having to spend time going through the entire range of them himself. The ref also has the voice of New York in his ear, telling him what’s important and eliminating the fluff.

But the natural question is: Are too many cooks spoiling the broth? Is replay actually better when the league office and the millions it can spend on technology—there are 82 television monitors and 21 NFL employees in this room the size of a modest Manhattan apartment—intercede in the business of making sure the seven-man on-field crews get third-down spots correct? Or is the New York influence too much Big Brother?

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First, some facts. Through the first nine weeks of this season the average replay delay per game—not per individual review—is down 22 seconds, from 3 minutes, 59 seconds, in 2013 to 3:37 this year. (There have been 1.8 replay reviews per game through 10 weeks.) And because there has been no major replay debacle through nearly two-and-a-half months, the NFL counts itself fortunate. The league knows that the assistance from New York is cutting down, not eliminating, its margin for error.

On this late afternoon in Week 7, the key play for the replay center—it's not a game-decider, but the biggest decision of the three-hour block—comes from the Cowboys-Giants game in Arlington, Texas, where Jerome Boger’s crew is officiating.

When the play occurs, Blandino has just finished checking Twitter, of all things, over a hairy call at the end of the one of the early games, Seattle at St. Louis. As he checks, his cellphone rings. It’s a coach wanting to discuss a play from one of the early games. “Let me take this outside,” he says to Riveron, with the understanding that Riveron would now become the point person in the room on all replays until Blandino returns.

Now, here in Replay Central, replay technician Sean McKee announces to the room: “Ball’s loose in Dallas.”

On the screen in front of McKee, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett holds the challenge flag in his right hand, considering whether to use it.

All potential changes of possessions are reviewed. With Blandino out of the midtown Manhattan command center for a minute, Riveron walks over to look at the four screens at the console in front of McKee.

16:48:43 says the clock on the far wall. It is ticking.

* * *

“Ball came out,” McKee says, briefing Riveron. “They’re ruling him down in.”

Late in the first quarter, Eli Manning of the Giants had a third-and-seven at his 40, and threw a pass in the right flat to slot receiver Preston Parker. Near the 47, Parker got hogtied to the ground by Dallas safety Barry Church, and as Parker’s forearm slammed to the artificial turf, the ball popped out. Now the officials huddle on the field.

The play in question: Dallas’s Church takes down the Giants’ Preston. (NFL Game Rewind) The play in question: Dallas’s Church takes down the Giants’ Parker. (NFL Game Rewind)

In New York, Gamer Paradiso commences. There are 16 stations in the room like the one McKee sits at now. Riveron walks a few steps over to stand behind McKee, and he puts on headphones to be able to communicate with replay official Carl Madsen in Texas. After a few seconds, Blandino comes back in and stands to left of the console, looking at the same four monitors McKee sees. Riveron is over McKee’s shoulder.

In front of the three men: four high-def monitors. The top left is the “line feed”—what the crew in the broadcast truck sees. The top right is the “under-the-hood feed,” what the official on the field sees when he begins his review. Bottom left: the “touch screen,” which New York can use to call up individual replays and queue them for the ref under the hood to see. Bottom right: the New York viewing monitor controlled by Blandino or Riveron to watch the replays they want.

On top of the four-monitor setup are two small digital timers: “Review time” and “Total time.” The latter is the time from when the coach throws the challenge flag to when the referee makes the announcement on the field. Review time is the span that begins when the referee goes under the hood on the field, and by NFL rule it cannot exceed one minute. When the clock hits 60 seconds, the video to the on-field screen cuts off, and the referee must make his call. It rarely gets that far, though, particularly under the new system with the eyes in New York helping.

The call on the field is down by contact, which is quickly confirmed in New York. (NFL Game Rewind) The indication on the field is down by contact, which is quickly confirmed in New York. (NFL Game Rewind)

Beyond the stations used to monitor the replays is a bank of 14 flat-screen high-def monitors to carry the DirecTV feeds of all the day games and the NBC feed of the looming Sunday night game, San Francisco at Denver.

The crew in New York sees the first replay, from the sideline, and it shows the ball popping free from Parker only after he was slammed to the turf. Riveron has the headset on. The replay official, Madsen, can hear him. “Right arm, forearm, clearly down,” Blandino says.

On the upper left screen, one official is pointing to the ground, giving Boger the ruling on the field: “Down by contact, down by contact.”

Boger flicks his in-stadium mike on. “Runner is down by contact,” he says. “New York keeps the ball.”

The officials place the ball squarely on the New York 47, just atop the yellow line that everyone watching on TV sees but the officials in the stadium don’t. It appears to be a generous spot. The officials call for a measurement, and it’s a first down, barely.

The original spot, at the 47, appeared generous, and Dallas coach Garrett will challenge. (NFL Game Rewind) The original spot, at the 47, appears generous, and gives the Giants a first down. (NFL Game Rewind)

After seeing the spot, Garrett throws the flag, and tells Boger he’s challenging the spot.

McKee starts the Total time stopwatch.

“Dallas is challenging the ruling on the field of a first down,” Boger announces. “The play will be reviewed.”

The technology here is varied. Riveron wears a Bose headset with microphone, and communicates for the time being only to Madsen, wearing a similar headset 1,700 miles away in a booth in Arlington. On the field, all the officials wear a hard-to-notice headset made by a French company, Vokkero, and New York has the ability, when needed, to communicate with the referee.

Riveron over his headset, says to Madsen: “What do you think of the spot, Carl?”

Madsen says to Riveron: “We’re not worried about down by contact. That’s done. I’m gonna show Jerome the line feed.”

Riveron: “Show him the line feed. Elbow’s down. Look at the spot.”

Boger goes under the hood, and McKee presses the digital monitor for Review time.

Another look shows that Preston touched at the 46-and-a-half. (NFL Game Rewind) Another look shows that Parker’s elbow touched between the 46 and 47. (NFL Game Rewind)

Blandino, meanwhile, is using his Xbox console, moving the replays back and forth quickly so he can catch up. As Boger goes under the hood, Blandino uses the same Microsoft XBox One console that most American adolescents use to play Madden or Grand Theft Auto. It wasn’t long ago that Blandino, 43, was a gamer himself. “I have an Xbox,” he says. “I can’t find time to play it. But it’s what I’m most comfortable using, so it’s the way I do video on Sundays and the way I review video during the week.”

Parker’s elbow hits midway between the 46 and 47. It’s close to a first down, but at least a foot away, from the replay look.

Later, Blandino would say: “You do have to discipline yourself to not gloss over things, because that’s when you can miss something. Even though there’s an obvious aspect to the play that’s reviewable—in this case, the down by contact—there could be something else that’s also reviewable that’s not as obvious. It’s a balancing act between being efficient and being thorough—you also have to look at, well, did he make the first down? Was he short? So there are multiple reviewable aspects of that play, and you do have to discipline yourself to not just have a knee-jerk reaction and move on. We’ve learned the hard way in some instances, where you look at something and you think, Oh yeah, that’s a catch, the ball didn’t hit the ground. Then another angle comes up later and it doesn't look as clear.

“In this particular case, the benefit of the system we have now is while Jerome is going over to get under the hood, as he’s making his way, he’s listening to what we are talking to the replay official about so that he can get a sense of what kind of evidence we have, what type of angles we’re looking at. So he’s just listening. In the past he wouldn’t have heard anything from the replay official until he put his headset on at the replay [machine]. Now he can hear the replay official and New York, so he’s got a pretty good idea what he’s going to see when he starts the review.”

The clear, important replays are lined up for Boger once he gets to the sideline replay device. “Guys,” says Riveron, speaking to Blandino, Madsen and Boger, “let’s get this straight. Listen up, listen up. Put the ball down at the 46-and-a-half and let’s measure.”

The new spot leaves New York short of a first down. Dallas wins the challenge, and a penalty on fourth down will force the Giants to punt. (NFL Game Rewind) The new spot leaves New York short of a first down. Dallas wins the challenge, and a penalty on fourth down will force the Giants to punt. (NFL Game Rewind)

Boger sees what New York sees, and agrees. No fumble. Ball at the 46-and-a-half. If the measurement results in a first down, Garrett loses a timeout. If the measurement results in the Giants being short, Garrett doesn’t lose his timeout. Got all that?

In New York, just to be certain, they review the replay once more. And two more reminders are sent into the ears of Boger and Madsen: Play clock at 25. Ball’s on the hash near the Dallas sideline.

So this is what the replay had to figure out:

  1. Was it a fumble? No, so the ball belongs to the Giants.
  2. Where should the ball be marked? At the 46-and-a-half yard line.
  3. Should Dallas be charged with a timeout? No.
  4. At which hash should the ball be spotted? The one near the Dallas sideline.

Review time: 60 seconds. Total time: 3:41.

The second number, three minutes and 41 seconds to solve all the problems with this one play, disappoints Blandino. But the call is correct, in all ways, now. If it took 25 or 30 extra seconds to get there because the process isn’t perfect yet, well, Blandino will take it. The communication on many replays now, to Blandino, is superfluous, and this must be fixed. The process should be all business, all the time. “My job in a lot of this, from an efficiency standpoint, is to focus on the key aspect,” Blandino says later. “Let’s get to the point, versus taking the scenic route.”

He says: “By no means do we think the process is perfect.” But the system confirmed the non-fumble and the precise placement of the ball. The new system helped get the play right, and probably faster than it would have done last year.

 

* * *

Blandino and his New York team in action. (Courtesy NFL) Blandino (left) and the New York crew in action. (Courtesy NFL)

Most of the replay work from New York is the confirmation of obvious plays. For the rest of the three-hour block, Blandino and Riveron nod their approval to easy decisions, and the replay technician says into his headset, “New York confirms.” The replay technicians also save shots of egregious and potential fineable plays, such as a launching by San Diego safety Jahleel Addae into a Chiefs ball carrier. “Thirty-seven, launching,’’ said Blandino to replay tech Terell Canton, referring to Addae’s number. “Save that one for the Competition Committee.”

At one point late in the first half of the Giants-Cowboys game, Lee says, “Just heard a strange thing. Not sure I’ve heard this in a game before. Quarterback yells, ‘53’s the mike! 53’s the mike!’ And 53 yells, ‘I’M NOT THE MIKE!’ ” Identifying “the mike” means the quarterback has isolated that player as the middle linebacker, and will work the protection around that. That’s a new one. But mostly it’s quiet.

“We like it quiet,” Blandino said near halftime of the three games, “but it never stays quiet.”

It mostly does on this day, with one exception. Late in the first half of the Cardinals-Raiders game, replay technician Moss calls out: “Muffed punt in Oakland.”

Blandino walks the four steps to Moss’s station. “What do you got?” he says.

Under a minute left in the second quarter. Arizona punts from its 37. Oakland return man T.J. Carrie gets under it, feels pressure by Cardinals pursuit man Justin Bethel. Carrie lets it bounce. Ball comes perilously close to Carrie; it might have hit him. Bethel pounces on the ball. Either he recovered a muff after Carrie touched it, which would make it Arizona ball, or he downed it at the Raider 23. Clete Blakeman’s crew rules the punt was not touched by Carrie. Oakland ball.

“Very close,” Blandino, with headset on, says, punching up two replays on the touch screen and now communicating with replay official Richard Reels.

 
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“Richie!” Blandino says with some urgency, “stop the game. We don’t know if he touched the ball. Look at replay D. D as is dog.”

Moss hits “Review Time.” In the stadium, Blakeman says the call is under review. As Blakeman goes to the replay hood on the field, Blandino reviews the five replays he can see and explains the options. Moss first punches up “D,” the replay showing in slow motion the closest view of Carrie, under pressure by Bethel, getting out of the way as the ball hits the turf—and comes with centimeters of him. Either that or it grazed him. Blandino punches up “G,” the rear view of the play, and these are the two plays that are set up for Blakeman.

Blakeman, on the screen, goes under the hood. Moss hits “Review Time.”

Within two quick views, it’s clear that there’s no view that shows the ball hitting Carrie.

“The fact that the ball didn’t change direction is not definitive evidence,” Blandino says into the headset to Reels and Blakeman. “You need to see hand or body on the ball.”

They don’t see it. Blakeman leaves the hood.

“Review Time: :08.”

“Total time: 1:23.”

Blandino takes the headset off and says, “The call has to stand. It’s just not indisputable.”

So some review: Blandino is a fix-it man. The reason he was looking at Twitter is because of a controversial fumble in the Seattle-St. Louis game—a call that couldn’t be overturned once the ball was hidden in the pile; the replay official and New York officials had no view to confirm or overturn the call, so the play stood. And one last issue: If Blandino and Riveron are occupied, and there’s a third replay review neither can get to, the official on the field and replay official upstairs will handle it the old-fashioned way, by themselves.

* * *

One piece of business from the day does nag: It’s clear from the authority Blandino and Riveron have that the officials’ world is a different one now. On the Cowboys-Giants call, Riveron didn’t say to Boger: It looks like the ball should be at the 46 and a half. He said, Put the ball at the 46 and a half and measure. Has New York stuck its nose too far into the on-field officiating process?

“I don’t think so,” Blandino said. “The goal of this system is to apply a consistent standard in terms of making these decisions. Anytime we can centralize that and have a small group of people manage that process, I think we’re going to be more consistent. So the referee still has a lot of input. The referee will make the decision in conjunction with New York. And there will be times when, in the interest of efficiency and consistency and accuracy, where we step in and say, ‘Here’s what’s it’s going to be.’ ”

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Just get it right. And get it consistent. That’s the aim. Ten weeks in, it’s working. There hasn’t been an Armageddon bad call of a reviewable play. The process is faster, though not in a revolutionary way. “I like the way we’re going,” Blandino said when the day was over. “The process has been streamlined.”

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