Officiating: How Replay Works

This week we have a request from reader TomC to give a rundown of instant-replay review protocol, so I prepared this jumbo-sized Officiating update to completely explain video review. Protocol and management are actually one of the thorniest aspects of review process, because so little is actually covered in the rule book. I think it's important to again break down the three parts of effective officiating:

1) Rules. This much is obvious: the officials have to understand the rules, be able to adequately explain the rules, and dole out any enforcements to the coaches and captains.

2) Game Management. The ability to keep the ball moving back to the spot, to effectively communicate down and distance to the coaches and captains, and to coordinate between officials to resolve any disputes quickly and fairly.

3) Philosophy. This is a nebulous-but-ubiquitous term for officials. The rules are sometimes open to interpretation, and in many cases explicitly require a subjective judgment by the official.

Replay protocol is a mix of parts two and three, neither of which are actually publicly available, since they are given directly to NFL officials via rules and play review during the week and training during the off-season. With that in mind, there are a few bright-line rules:

A challenge will be initiated by the replay official (in the press box) if there is a questionable ruling during the last two minutes of either half, in overtime, and on any scoring plays, interceptions, fumbles, backwards passes that result in a turnover, or muffed scrimmage kicks when recovered by the kicking team. Commentators and announcers constantly simplify this process as "all turnovers and scoring plays are automatically reviewed." That is not true. The actual process is that the replay official will review the play to determine whether an instant replay review (performed by the referee) is warranted. All the 2011 and 2012 rules changes effectuated was a shifting of discretion to initiate the review from the head coaches to the replay official.

If a play is not one where challenges are initiated by the replay official, each head coach has at least two opportunities to challenge the ruling on the field, and is awarded a third if his first two challenges are successful. Between 1998 and 2005, coaches signaled challenges via a pager held by the referee. However, due to coaches abusing the system by paging the referee to merely discuss plays with him and not to challenge, the league transitioned to a system of red challenge flags to signify the coach initiating a replay review. The 2012 rule book also contains new language that mandates a 15-yard penalty for a coach attempting to initiate a challenge when, by rule, he is prohibited from doing so. The replay official still uses the pager system to initiate reviews when applicable.

After the challenge is initiated, the referee will announce via intercom that the result of the play is being challenged, who is challenging it, and what aspect of the play is being challenged. The referee then performs the signal to stop the clock three times, followed by a replay review signal that is similar to the signal for unsportsmanlike conduct. From there, the referee retires to a hooded monitor for 60 seconds (but, in practice, as long as the referee feels like taking) on the field level to look at high definition footage of the play from multiple angles. While the call is ultimately made by the referee, there is no bar on the referee from involving the officials involved in making the call in a consultation, so long as those officials are not under the hood reviewing the video themselves.

The referee is looking for indisputable visual evidence that any challenged aspect of the play was incorrectly called, and a coach is charged with a timeout if the challenge is not upheld in a manner that materially affects the competitive balance of the game (the most famous example of that principle is a re-spot favorable to the offense that does not result in a first down). It is important to remember that each part of the play is handled separately under this standard. While there may be indisputable evidence that a would-be fumble was recovered by the opposing team, the point is moot if there is not indisputable visual evidence that the catch prior to the fumble was made out of bounds. The converse is also true: if the ruling on an incomplete pass is reversed to a fumble, there must be clear possession established by the opposing team to award a change in possession.

Policies such as this have actually had a direct effect on game management, as officials have been instructed (philosophy!) to allow a marginal play to run far longer than previously allowed, so as to preserve tape of a possible play extension. This does help greatly on marginal reviews, but unfortunately presents a significant downside in confusion between officials and players. It also occasionally becomes a safety hazard, when players on either team believe a play is over and let their guard down while other players recognize the ball is not yet dead.

The rule book does provide an exhaustive list of rulings eligible for instant replay review, although as we discussed a few weeks ago, the discretion available to a referee in reviewing collateral issues is a matter of interpretation the NFL has not shared with anyone other than its officials. The main categories that are reviewable are:

1) Plays involving the sideline, goal line and end line

2) Passing plays, most often the forwardness of a pass, eligibility of receivers and whether a catch is a legal reception

3) Whether a player was down by contact as it relates to a catch, run or fumble.

Almost no penalties are reviewable, and game administration (clocks, penalty enforcements and proper down) is never reviewable.

Hopefully that provided a quick rundown of the replay review process. If you have any questions, go ahead and ask away in comments, although the answer may very well be "Only the league knows." The NFL employs ninja to guard their secrets well.


27 comments, Last at 13 Nov 2012, 11:27am

1 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

1) If the pressbox official does not decide to buzz down to the referee for a booth review of a turnover or score, is a coach allowed to use a challenge flag to force a booth review? (Not saying it would be a good idea -- just wondering if it is possible).

2) Who is selecting what is shown on the replay booth's screen? The ref? The upstairs guy? Whatever the network televising the game feels like showing? That has always been horribly unclear. We know there are no independent cameras, so the video does have to come from the network coverage. But do the replays get "downloaded" into the NFL system so the officials can control it? Or are they at the mercy of the network's on-site director?

3) Regardless of what the coach challenges, when the ref goes to the booth he is obliged to look at the entire play, correct? Is he supposed to give particular attention to the specific thing the coach has challenged? Or is that just one input into his review process?

6 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

Excellent questions and I've heard conflicting answers to all of them. Hope these get answered definitively.

#2 gets thrown out there by the announcers as a total afterthought "The crowd's reacting because they're seeing what we are." Okay...but that's a pretty neat trick. How exactly is that happening? Is the network or official taking control of the Jumbotron? Or does the Jumbotron guy need to be on his toes and tie in to whatever feed the video is on? And if the replay official was a total dufus would the crowd know that because they'd see he wasn't looking at the right thing?

9 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

Starting this year, during a review, the feed to the referee is now shown on the Jumbotron, so we get to see exactly what he's looking at. As far as the mechanics of what the referee is watching, I think he and the replay official upstairs call for particular shots, but I'll defer to someone who actually knows.

26 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

In answer to question 1:

That would be a 15-yard penalty. The review booth has control over that challenge. I remember this occurring last year with the 49ers, I believe it was against the Lions, though I can't remember. Jim Harbaugh tried to challenge something that the review booth had control over (I believe it was a scoring play by the Lions) because he didn't think they had looked at it close enough (as evidenced by his insistence on using one of his challenges) and he got a penalty.

In answer to question 3:

I am not sure if particular attention is paid to the specific thing the coach has challenged, but I would assume that it is human nature that it is. Now, if by rule that is the case I don't know. They are supposed to take the whole play into consideration though.

2 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

The 2012 rule book also contains new language that mandates a 15-yard penalty for a coach attempting to initiate a challenge when, by rule, he is prohibited from doing so.

That penalty for challenging actually dates back earlier.

There has always been a 15-yard penalty for challenging when one's team is out of timeouts or is out of challenges (unless one is Jim Harbaugh). 2011 added a penalty for challenging within the 2-minute warning, in overtime, or on scoring plays. 2012 added a penalty for challenging plays ruled turnovers on the field and condensed the language in the rulebook.

7 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

A random challenge inside the 2 minute warning I can see being penalized because it stops play, but I don't get why there'd be a penalty involving plays that are being reviewed anyway. What harm would be done by a coach throwing a challenge flag out on the field after a turnover? If anything, it'd make it apparent to the replay judge that he just might want to take an extra close look because maybe there was something that was missed on the field.

To me, one of the strengths of the NFL review system was it was largely based on what the coaches wanted to check out. If neither coach is going to have a cow over a call, it seems pointless to waste much time reviewing it. A turnover might be overruled late in a 30-10 game. Nobody is really going to care how that review turns out. But they'll penalize a coach for trying to ensure they take a really close look at a play they're supposed to be checking out anyway?

22 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

That's an excellent point. They should call for a review like if the two closest refs were obscured and aren't sure if a guy had his feet inbounds. But the way the system is now they just have to guess then one coach or the other needs to decide if it is worth a challenge.

27 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

Yeah, I think there shouldn't be a penalty for throwing a flag on a play where a review should be initiated from the booth. I mean, the coach isn't gaining from it is he, its a play that should be reviewed anyway, and it could stop the ones that slip through the cracks.

The challenge within 2 minutes isn't an issue either - you can only challenge if you have a timeout, you effectively lose that timeout if you lose the challenge. If you wanted to call a timeout, you could just call a timeout.

3 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

"Almost no penalties are reviewable, and game administration (clocks, penalty enforcements and proper down) is never reviewable."

Is 12 players on the field the only reviewable penalty?

10 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

So when there's a review after a pick 6 if the QB was either fumbling or incompleting a pass - can the ref call back the touchdown for blocking in the back?

12 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

I don't think so since that's a penalty. But I'm pretty sure he could call it back if he saw that the fumble returner stepped out-of-bounds while tightroping the sideline. (Though I'd like to know that definitively.)

16 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

You're right. Most penalties, including the block in the back Sunday, require some judgment on the part of the official who does or doesn't call it. Stepping out of bounds, or a pass bouncing into a receiver's hands, is more cut and dried, and if the referee can see that the call on the field was wrong, he'll overturn it.

(That's not to say that all penalty calls are right; just that there are too many subjective elements to make them reviewable.)

18 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

I find it interesting that only one aspect of the play is reviewable. Does this mean that if a coach challenges a catch by a receiver who also happens to step OB 5 paces earlier, that cannot be reviewed if it is not requested by the coach at the time of the challenge? odd.

19 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

They review the whole play. Not all aspects are reviewable as outlined above. But all reviewable aspects are in play during the review. I'm not sure what the coach calling for review says matters at all. Maybe it's just a hint. Maybe it matters for the purposes of "winning" a challenge.

21 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

Does the specific element have to be overturned, or is the challenge successful if the play result is changed in a "competitively meaningful" way?

For example -- QB underthrows a WR hitch and the WR manages to just catch it at the line of scrimmage before it hits the ground (or does he). Then the WR breaks a tackle at the sideline (three yards downfield from the LOS) and takes it 50 yards down the sideline to the 1.

The defending team challenges the play, claiming that the pass was incomplete.

When the ref reviews it, he sees that the pass was complete but that the WR stepped OOB when he broke the tackle.

So the ref changes the outcome of the play from first and goal at the 1 to 2nd and 7 at the offense's 47.

Did the challenge succeed or not? The play was basically overturned, but not for the challenged reason.

23 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

I seem to recall a challenge once where there were two very distinct possibilities: The QB looked to be across the line of scrimmage when he threw, and the receiver might have stepped out of bounds quite a ways prior to where the refs marked it. I don't remember what the exact outcome was, but I believe the challenge succeeded. Does that mean the coach had to correctly pick which of those was wrong for it to have been successful? (Like if he challenged about the receiver being out of bounds early and that part was wrong he'd have been charged a timeout even though they would have waived off the completion?)

25 Re: Officiating: How Replay Works

I also recall a couple instances like that, but don't remember any exact details. I know that the announcers usually say that any part of the play being overturned results in a challenge win for the coach, so in the example given, even if the coach challenged the catch and the OOB part was overturned, it would still be a win. However, announcers are sometimes wrong, so that could be incorrect.

I also wonder what happens if a coach challenges something and then another part of the play turns out to not be in their favor what happens. For instance, if there is a pass that gets ruled incomplete on the field, but the offensive coach thought it was caught and challenges, what happens if it turns out it was a completed catch, but the receiver had previously stepped out of bounds, so now it is actually a penalty on the offense. I'm trying to think of other examples where something like that might happen, where the replay actually shows a result which is negative for the challenging team.