Inside the Two-Year Process That Could Finally Lead to a SkyJudge for the 2020 NFL Season

NFL owners will vote Thursday on a version of the SkyJudge for the 2020 preseason, with the option to then extend it to the 2020 regular season. It's the culmination of a two-year process that involved blown calls, compromise and a group of hardworking coaches. Plus, notes on the onside kick proposal, minicamps and more.
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The seminal moment in the development of a coach-driven SkyJudge proposal happened in a conference room at the Indiana Convention Center on a cold February day. The group, made up of the coaches subcommittee and the NFL’s competition committee, had retiring referee Walt Anderson, who’d spent 24 seasons officiating pro football and was moving into a senior role at the league, in the room.

He was asked a simple question: What do you want?

“Well, I don’t want to be on SportsCenter on Monday,” he responded.

Right there, the coaches’ fight was boiled down to one sentence. Too often, the officials have become the story after games, and not for good reasons. Too often, the reasons were avoidable.

“When Walt said that, the meeting got real,” said Chargers coach Anthony Lynn on Wednesday. “Because Walt was being honest.”

Minutes after Lynn said that to me Wednesday, proposals for the booth umpire (a modified name for the SkyJudge) and the STAR (senior technology assistant to the referee), put forth by his team and the Ravens, were pulled from the agenda for Thursday afternoon’s owners call, during which teams will vote on rule changes. In its place, the league is likely to expand the authority of the replay official for preseason games, to experiment with the idea.

At first (and you can see this on my Twitter timeline), I thought that was crazy, pulling back from all the work the coaches have done. But it turns out that this was just one more step being taken in the direction of giving officials something that they probably should’ve gotten a long time ago.

The SkyJudge is coming.

We’ll explain.

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It’s the end of May, and we’ve got plenty to dive into. In this week’s GamePlan, you’ll get …

• The five biggest contract-extension situations to watch.

• A deeper look at the onside kick rules adjustment.

• An examination of whether minicamp is coming.

But we’re starting with the rule-change decision that will likely resonate most, when we get to the fall, provided there’s real, live football.

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In the simplest terms, here it is: Tens of millions of NFL fans are afforded, on every game broadcast, crystal-clear HD footage of every play from a dozen (or more) different angles. And somehow, that benefit, one that takes a $300 TV and a cable subscription to get, that we all have from our couches, hasn’t been passed along to the guys officiating those game.

Seem crazy? If it has to you, I’d say pretty much every head coach in the NFL agreed with you, and believed that, by now, someone should’ve figured out a way to fix that problem.

And so, over the last couple years, the coaches subcommittee took it upon itself to do the work, with Ravens coach John Harbaugh running point, ex-Cowboys coach Jason Garrett helping last year, Lynn helping this year, and Chiefs coach Andy Reid playing a significant role throughout. The thought, for a lot of coaches, was that last year’s pass interference review rules were another step toward the implementation of the SkyJudge, as was the AAF incorporating a version of that sort of official in its lone season of 2019.

At the NFL’s 2019 Annual Meeting, the 32 coaches banded together, drafted a SkyJudge plan and voted 32-0 in favor of it. Eventually, with owners not ready to embrace it, the PI review was reached as a compromise. But as the NFL got there, in the room, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie championed the coaches’ drive to bridge the technological gap, by supporting their desire to push toward better solutions, and Garrett spoke eloquently about prioritizing “getting it right,” drawing a round of applause from all of those in attendance.

And while we all know how things played out with that PI compromise, the coaches continued to work with NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent and SVP of football operations Dave Gardi through the fall to try and craft a plan that would, above all else, give the officials the resource of the technology that we all have at home.

“Everybody recognizes what a great job they do and how hard the job is,” Harbaugh said of the officials on Wednesday morning. “These calls are made under a microscope. And it’s a microscope with the fans seeing it in high def and knowing what really happened. And then the credibility of the outcome of the game comes into question for the fans. And that’s really the crux of the whole thing.”

What Harbaugh, Reid and Lynn, and the other coaches involved (the legendary John Madden was a vital resource for the group, as well), found was that the officials didn’t want to let these things go any more than the coaches did—so Anderson, who’s helped to set up booth official protocols in college football, worked with the group to try and figure out the best way to go about solving the problem.

And while the officials’ miss in the Saints-Rams NFC title game in January 2019 may have been what ignited a lot of this discussion, it was hardly the only example of what everyone saw as needing to be fixed. In fact, Reid, at one point, actually raised a call that went his way—in which Patriots rookie WR N’Keal Harry was called out of bounds on a play that should’ve been a touchdown in a December K.C. win. There were others too, and all were motivation to stay on task, with a plan coalescing ahead of that meeting at the 2020 combine.

The first key would be keeping power in the hands of the head referee, and the plan that Harbaugh and Co. wound up putting together reflected that. The booth umpire would report to the head referee, have no power to stop the game or overrule the field officials and could only give his input until the play clock hit :25 (giving him roughly 15 seconds to chime in) or per the request of the referee.

The limits on time also would ensure only egregious misses would prompt intervention from the booth. “There’s always gray, any fan can go back and complain about calls, but you understand it’s part of the game,” Harbaugh said. “It’s the ones that aren’t gray, that are black-and-white, that are clear-cut, either wrong or clear-cut misses, those are the ones that fans don’t accept.”

The second key would be a tougher one to crack—who these officials would wind up being.

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Along the way, coaches found more benefits to the plan than even they initially intended, and some of their own experiences played right into those.

Lynn recalled being relegated to the booth as a young Cowboys assistant, after a near-death experience in 2005—during training camp, he’d been struck by drunk driver, crossing a street in California—and how illuminating the view up there was. He promised himself that if he ever became a play-caller, he’d coach from there, because of the vantage point it gave him, and he followed through on that when he was promoted to Bills OC in 2016.

Along those lines, he thinks, aside from just having the broadcast, the official in the booth should be able to help the crew in seeing the game from a different spot.

“When I coached upstairs, I saw the field so much better,” Lynn said. “So to put that guy in that position can’t do anything but help.”

Also, there’s the fact that where some worried a SkyJudge could slow the game down, the coaches feel like it actually may speed the game up. The presence of the booth umpire, as they see it, should eliminate the sorts of challenges where the result is obvious—which will save everyone from having to watch the officials walk over, get under the hood, go through that process, and emerge to tell people what they already know.

So you get calls right and cut the fat from the broadcast.

“The last thing I wanted was to slow the game down,” Lynn said. “Football’s not perfect, people are not perfect, there will always be missed calls. But we felt like we could get this done in an effective way, and in a way that speeds the game up, and helps the officials with obvious calls, because it is such a fast game. At that speed, anyone is going to miss some obvious things. This should be a great tool for them to take care of that.”

That left that one question, that second key, going into the last few weeks—who exactly would be the booth umpire? The coaches wanted it to be an actual official. The idea of having former “white hats” (head officials) come in was discussed, as was the idea of bringing college “white hats” into the fold in the role, or just shuffling roles within crews to put someone experienced upstairs.

Part of the emphasis there, for the coaches, was that the person would need to be part of the crew, giving them time to earn the trust of the others, and the head referee especially, so the communication would be seamless and any complications could be easily worked out. (That dynamic was so important to the coaches involved, that Garrett at one point proposed mandating that crews meet twice weekly—once to wrap up the previous week’s game, and then again to prep for the game ahead.)

Therein lied the difference between proposals put forth by the Ravens and Chargers, and one concocted by the competition committee. The former called for an eighth official to be hired, with each crew getting a booth umpire, and a STAR as his right-hand man. The latter called for the replay official and replay assistant to, in essence, take on the job descriptions of the booth umpire and STAR, as the coaches proposed them, as a preseason experiment.

Anderson wound up vouching for using the current crew of replay officials, with a few exceptions, to the coaches. And the league assured the coaches that those officials would travel and be assigned to crews (the replay officials were actually not traveling for a while, meaning they’d just work with whatever crew was in town) for the season, allowing for relationships to develop. On top of that, the NFL made changes to the lineup of replay officials where they were needed.

The best part? If it works, the league has the leeway to implement it this year. Meaning the SkyJudge, finally, could be in the NFL in 2020.

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So while this may not be just like the coaches drew it up—some are still hoping they get there eventually—this work has been as rewarding for those involved as a big comeback win.

Because, really, that’s what it was. After the PI rule went south, and ahead of the Indy meeting, ex-Ravens GM/long-time competition committee member Ozzie Newsome confided in some coaches that the SkyJudge was DOA.

That put the impetus on them to bring it back to life. Which, clearly, they’ve done.

“It’s absolutely been a cool process,” Lynn said. “Even when we all talked a couple years ago, this didn’t stand a chance. I gotta give John credit, he took the lead, we regrouped and he put together a tight proposal with a lot of people’s input. Knowing the questions when it went it out—What about this? What about that?—the way he presented it, I don’t see how you’d not take it seriously. He put in a lot of work. He was definitely the head coach of this process.”

In the end, the plays he called were enough to entice the competition committee to come around, and then the league office to come around, and for guys like Vincent and Gardi to become big backers of the coaches’ efforts—and that, as he looks at it, is because so much of this was common sense from the start.

And if it takes a couple extra steps to get all the way to where the coaches want it—with the scope of the booth official’s responsibility widening with time, and the league comfortable paying the guy as a regular part of the crew—then that’s OK, too. Because the idea here is so simple, that neither Harbaugh, nor any of the other guys I spoke with, have much doubt that common sense will carry it through.

“The fact that everyone can see the play, that the fans get to see it from a viewpoint that the officials don’t have access to? The heart of the matter is, that’s crazy,” Harbaugh said. “That shouldn’t be the case. So let’s fix that.”

And now, after two years of work, it’s out of the coaches’ hands and into the mitts of the owners to do just that. Here’s hoping, for the good of the game, they take advantage of it.

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POWER RANKINGS

A reader question from my Wednesday mailbag made me think of this one: Which veteran players, and let’s keep it to non-quarterbacks, have a case to fight for their money this summer? Obviously, the franchised guys are already in line at the bank. Who else could be planning a trip there? Let’s rank them …

1) Joey Bosa, DE, Chargers: He’s No. 1 because he plays a premium position, and has been eligible for a new deal for over a year. Guys like DeMarcus Lawrence and Frank Clark are at $21 million per, and Bosa’s better than either of them. It wouldn’t be a shocker if he winds up topping Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald, eventually.

2) Ronnie Stanley, OT, Ravens: Stanley’s draft classmante, Laremy Tunsil, got $22 million per year. Fair bet that Stanley will be looking for at least that much, and may just get it. He is that good, and investing in Stanley really is investing in Lamar Jackson, if you’re Baltimore.

3) Myles Garrett, DE, Browns: An absolutely outrageous talent. If he can keep his nose clean and start fast after missing the end of last year, the sky’s the limit in what he’ll be able to do. And the sky’s probably the limit for his contractual future as well.

4) A group of CBs: Marlon Humphrey (Ravens), Marshon Lattimore (Saints), Jalen Ramsey (Rams), Tre’Davious White (Bills). Fun fact: the NFL’s two highest-paid corners are new teammates (Miami’s Xavien Howard and Byron Jones). And those guys are good players, but it’s clear that a market correction is coming. Each of these four have potential to lead it.

5) Jamal Adams, S, Jets: The situation here’s well-documented. Talks have gone nowhere. Adams isn’t pleased with that. Some think this could become another situation like Ramsey’s end in Jacksonville. Stay tuned.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The actual numbers on onside kicks. And I’m lucky in that I have some coaches who’ve done the research to get me the numbers, and I thought some of them were interesting.

The research I was given by one team showed that the percentage of successful fourth-quarter (non-surprise) onside kicks in 2019 (10.7%) essentially matched the league-wide number (10.6) over the first nine years of the decade, after it dipped a little in 2018 as new kickoff rules were put in. In fact, if you rank those last 10 seasons, the 2019 number is smack in the middle—ranking fifth—and, again, that’s with the safety measures in.

Similarly, the league-wide success rate on third- and fourth-and-15 over the last 15 years (I had Warren Sharp look this up for me) is 16.5%. Which means what the owners will be voting to push through today, as an alternative to the onside kick, is the same sort of crapshoot that onside kick is.

Then, there’s this: The NFL has already had to make changes to a rule it hasn’t even put in yet, supplementing the original language with addendums to make it an untimed down (which prevents teams with leads from using the option to run the clock out), and prohibit its use in overtime (to prevent teams from using it to keep the other team from getting an OT possession).

And there are other potential issues here, including the prospect of it becoming a “pass interference” play (as in, throw it up and hope to get a call), and how it could bastardize the game.

All in all, I thought the idea was sort of fun at first. But the more I think about it, the more this idea seems a little rushed, and unnecessary. That said, if this is positioned as a health-and-safety measure on the call, as it’s expected to be, owners will probably be hesitant to vote against it, which may just push it right though.

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THE BIG QUESTION

Will minicamps happen?

In their normal form, I think it’s doubtful, and all it takes is a simple look at the calendar, and through states’ rules to figure that out. Michigan, for one, is under a stay-at-home order through June 12. Assuming that holds, let’s say, hypothetically of course, that the NFL starts the process of welcoming players back on June 15, the following Monday.

As I understand it, a rough sketch of the NFL/NFLPA joint committee for health-and-safety’s working plan looks like this …

• Limited players allowed into buildings at first, as teams conduct testing and physicals.

• 2-3 weeks of strength and conditioning.

• The helmets go on and practice starts.

If the process starts June 15, under this set of guidelines, teams would be running and lifting when spring work—per a negotiated agreement with the union—comes to an end on June 26. And yes, there’s a good chance these guidelines aren’t followed. But even still, is a coach going to rush to put players on a practice field after all that time away? The ones I’ve spoken have said, pretty much uniformly, they will not.

Which is why I still think waiting until training camp is the smart play. You don’t have the capacity now for daily testing, and the only way you wouldn’t need that is if you’re quarantining your team—which is essentially what camp is. So why not take advantage of that, even if it is after a “soft” opening that allows for a limited number of guys to come in, get tested, and test their team’s protocols? I, for one, think they should.

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THE FINAL WORD

Your reminder: Two months until camp.

What it means: The NFL and its teams still have plenty of time and flexibility with which to manage this unprecedented circumstance. They’d be wise to use it.

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