by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Mike: It was a rough week for the NFL's instant replay system.
Tom: Any bone in particular you wish to pick? I think the NFL's replay system is actually pretty good, though I do think they could shorten some of these stoppages.
Mike: Well, this week was particularly bad because it had examples of all the ways the current challenge system has completely failed.
Tom: Like what, teams hurrying up to run a play before an opposing coach can challenge, and plays not reviewed that should have been?
Mike: That is one problem, but we'll get to that later. The major screw-up, of course, was the non-review of Cory Harkey's maybe-recovery of Tre Mason's fumble in the Rams-Seahawks game. It is absolutely understandable that call was incorrect live. There was a sudden scrum for an unpredictable fumble and within the space of a second Harkey had the ball and then suddenly didn't and then there was a massive pile. A lot of hay has been made that this particular type of play can be reviewed this year, much to NaVorro Bowman's chagrin, but the league office decided not to hit the buzzer.
Tom: OK, I'm not pleased with how the NFL handles fumble recoveries, but is that really a replay issue?
Mike: It's an issue with that most legalistic of concepts, the standard of review. A play cannot be overturned unless there is indisputable evidence that during the play it was clearly recovered by a player for either side.
Tom: But the standard of review is a fumble-specific one, so I see it as a "fumbles in the context of replay" issue rather than a replay issue per se. And the NFL's seeming declaration that this a specific type of play we want to handle in a certain way, unlike all those other plays.
Mike: Right, that is the problem. Richard Sherman pretty clearly had the ball at the bottom of the scrum after Harkey very clearly failed to secure possession. When calling a loose ball play live, the officials never kill the clock and figure out whether anyone clearly had indisputable possession. They start digging and whoever has it when they get to the bottom wins.
Tom: In a way, the way they're treating fumbles on replay is a declaration of bankruptcy, if you want to take the extreme point of view. The NFL is admitting "there may be cases in a pile where a player has what would generally constitute possession, but we're not going to recognize that as possession."
Mike: That is a terrible analogy. My problem is that the vagaries of replay have substantively changed how these sorts of fumbles are resolved.
Tom: Fine, they're going to say "whoever has the ball at the bottom of the pile wins" and we're not going to use things like replay to judge whether a player has control even though we're comfortable judging control with replay in every other context.
Mike: Absent replay, the play was dead and everyone just says Harkey gained possession. Or the official lets the play continue and the Seahawks get the ball back. With replay, we are left with neither result. We know Harkey didn't have possession. We also know that Sherman had the ball. But with this system we are told to ignore both of these actual outcomes and pretend that the opposite of each occurred.
Tom: How so?
Mike: The NFL VP of officiating has stated the ball was loose going into the pile.
Tom: Right, so the issue is the officials ruled the Rams recovered the ball in the pile.
Mike: No, it's more complicated than that, because there is no evidence that any Rams player actually had the ball at any time during the pile-up. If there was recovery by the Rams, the only player that could have possessed the ball was Harkey, who clearly did not.
Tom: Well, yes and no.
Mike: Because with that Tweet we can see that the league did not agree that Harkey recovered the ball, because it was loose going into the pile. But because of the rules regarding replay on fumbles, there is no review because, while that statement implies the ruling on the field was incorrect, the current system was explicitly barred from using replay to establish that the ball was loose, much less reach the actual just result, which would be something akin to replay establishing that the ball was loose and the action on the field establishing that the Seahawks had recovered. Instead we get the opposite of what actually happened, in significant part because of how the replay system is designed.
Tom: Designed to deal with fumbles.
Mike: It's an example of how the system creates iniquity.
Tom: On fumbles.
Mike: Who cares that it is limited only to fumbles? Fumbles might be strange and random plays, but they are also extremely important plays.
Tom: Blandino gave more information on NFL Network's Total Access (video link), in which he clarified that the ball was awarded to the Rams because the ruling on the field was they recovered the ball in the pile.
Mike: Which makes no sense, because there's no actual evidence the Rams recovered the football. Regarding the inability of the replay system to deal with this particular sort of play, Blandino's explanation for fumble is basically "because rules." That is terrible. Oh, and "we should have stopped the game to engage in meaningless review so people would feel better." Which, I think, really cuts to the heart of the instant replay system's existence not as a way to improve the action on the field, but a placebo to make fans feel better about the process.
Tom: Right, so the officials on the field ruled St. Louis recovered the ball in the pile. Which is a fascinating call, considering that's not what the available evidence, as bad as it may be, indicated, plus it's not like a Rams player emerged from the pile with the ball.
Tom: They had this rule, then they had an exception that made them look bad in the NFC championship game last year, so they changed the rule.
Mike: And as we just saw, the changed rule basically had no effect. So all it has done thus far is create controversy on an important play in a very important game.
Let's go back to your question about teams hurrying up to avoid a replay. That creates a significant advantage for the offense. If a questionable play goes the defense's way, then the offense, as masters of the play clock, can simply wait in formation until the coach either throws the flag or gives the go-ahead. If a questionable call benefits the offense, however, the defense's head coach is largely at the mercy of how quickly the offense can line up and snap.
Tom: Yes, but I think it's negated by the fact that both teams get to play offense and defense. It may be an advantage for a particular team in a given instance, but it's not an advantage more generally. And besides, the very fact that an offense is hurrying is itself information to the opposing head coach.
Mike: It is creating an advantage within the sample size of one game, and one game is incredibly important in the NFL. So rather than dismiss it by saying that the advantage evens out over the long term, why are we not asking why this system allows such an advantage to exist in the first place?
Tom: The complaint you could instead have made is that home video board operators will show big screen replays for the home head coach, but not for the visiting head coach. I'd say that's at least as big a deal, and it's one that is very rarely discussed.
Mike: Honestly I don't think the video board makes a huge difference. Both coaching staffs have their own feed and a mic straight to their staff. Sure, the Jumbotron is showing a big picture to the head coach so he can have his own opinion, but if he doesn't trust his staff to tell him when to throw the flag, why do they even have staff for review?
Tom: Video board operators, especially if they have angles other than the ones in the TV broadcast, can make a huge difference. And from the booth, you don't always get a good view of something in particular. Ken Whisenhunt challenged a fumble non-call on Sunday when it wasn't absolutely obvious from the TV copy Alfred Morris was touched down. If the video board operator had been able to show him the end zone shot, it would have been absolutely obvious, and he wouldn't have had to waste a challenge.
Mike: I wasn't aware the video operator had more cameras than the TV feed. I thought it was a pool.
Tom: He doesn't have more cameras, but he has the opportunity to show feeds other than the TV one. So he can show TV's end zone feed even if TV doesn't show it.
Mike: But doesn't the coaching staff have access to all the cameras rather than just the TV feed? I think that NCAA just has the TV feed, but there are no challenges in NCAA.
Tom: I don't believe so. I believe they're just watching the TV feed, like in the press box.
Mike: That is a really good question, actually.
Tom: I'm pretty sure they don't, or at least didn't, and I haven't heard specifically of them having non-TV angles.
Mike: Well, if the coaches don't, then sure, that is a huge problem.
Tom: If I'm right, there's definitely an advantage there for a home team and a disadvantage for a road team.
Mike: If they do, I don't see the big deal. So yes, if true that would be a massive advantage to the home team.
Tom: I think you're holding replay to an unrealistic standard. It can solve some obvious calls that are resulting in teams winning and losing. It can't solve everything, as much as we might want it to.
Mike: Right, but what exactly are we going for? What do we want out of instant replay?At the end of the day we have a system that sometimes works to fix the low-hanging fruit, often fails to correct obvious errors because of the standard of review, adds significant delay to almost every game, and has given rise to rules that actually give a noncompetitive advantage to one team or the other.
(The original version of this story inappropriately linked and provided a graph which gave the impression that replay review accounted for more time in an NFL broadcast than it does. The graphic and link were removed and I am sorry for the confusion. --Mike Kurtz)
And, as we just saw this week, replay can result in a nonsensical ruling that is not only reviewable by rule but unreviewable in practice, but has the VP of officiating going on the NFL's own show to say that they should have reviewed it not because the review had any chance of success, but because it was just something that you should do for important plays. So what exactly about this system, which has the potential to take up more of the viewers' time than the actual act of playing football, is working?
Tom: There are some bad on-field calls easily fixed by replay.
Mike: And the average rate of success for coach's challenges are basically a coin flip.
Tom: Maybe some of those are caused by replay, letting fumbles go because they know replay is around to fix it instead of making a more decisive call on the field.
Mike: Perhaps. But even then, the system itself has biased the game by giving an advantage to one team over another. Randomly distributed, perhaps, due to wherever the game is currently being played or who is on offense, but still a distinct advantage.
Tom: But it's an advantage for one team for half its games (less London?) and a disadvantage for the other half its games. Inequitable, but a balanced inequity, like winning the coin toss.
Mike: The coin toss is a necessary evil. It is also fairly random. This is not random, this is, again over a sample size of one game, giving a clear advantage to one team or the other.
Tom: Like winning the coin toss? In overtime, I mean, since I don't see the coin toss at the beginning of the game as a big deal.
Mike: Again, a coin toss to determine who gets the first option is necessary. You cannot start the game without some method of determining possession. Instant replay is not necessary. NFL football has been quite happily played without it.
Tom: And it's been almost 11 years since Michael David Smith proposed an alternative to the coin toss.
Mike: And if I recall, the team that won the coin toss in overtime even under the old rules did not win an overwhelming percentage of the games. Plus the recent rule changes dampen the effect even more.
Tom: The coin toss seemed to present an edge for roughly the first 20 years of overtime play. I believe over the last almost 20 years it did not.
Mike: Well, let's be honest. The only truly equitable means of determining initial possession is a scramble for the ball. The NFL is simply unwilling to pay the price for perfection.
Mike: Replay, unfortunately, has no such perfect solution for the league to even reject. In fact, we haven't even figured out a halfway solution; the system is time-consuming, creates unacceptable advantages on the micro scale, and has spawned a constant and malingering controversy over not only the plays on the field, nor the rulings on the field, but also how replay treats those rulings. Marginal improvements in the accuracy of rulings does not counterbalance these real and serious problems. We are all better off without replay.
Tom: Well, Mike, what did you learn in Week 7?
Mike: Aside from the fact that I hate instant replay?
Tom: I thought you hated replay before now!
Mike: Curses, foiled by our artificial construct of recently acquired knowledge!
I suppose I learned that NFL locker rooms are bizarre and unpredictable places.
Tom: I assume you're referring to recent events in Chicago.
Mike: The Bears have always been a beacon of stability and sanity in what is in all seriousness an extremely wacky league. Lovie Smith was basically '50s dad, and teams with defense-first personas always tend to keep their heads down a little bit.
Mike: Perhaps it's because of some difference in mentality between offensive and defensive players, but I'm not really buying that. There are a bevy of diva defensive backs and problem child defensive ends. And yes, Rex Ryan is a thing.
Even when the focus in Chicago switched to the offense, things always seemed sedate. Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler were besties, Matt Forte was the consummate professional and Alshon Jeffery was learning the ropes. Sure, Black Unicorn is kind of batty, but he's batty in a smart and sophisticated way.
Tom: Martellus Bennett is indeed great. But losing begets unhappiness, I think it's fair to say. And the Bears have won fewer regular season games at Soldier Field this calendar season than have the Blackhawks, which is my new favorite tidbit.
Mike: They were losing more than enough before this! And suffering from a far more acute case of Bad Jay Cutler in the past, to boot. So I was floored when I saw Marshall criticizing Cutler to the media. And then even more floored when Marc Trestman, Esq., was trying to paper the whole thing over. I was not surprised by Jay Cutler sitting in the corner doing his usual cat impersonation. But considering the culture that has reigned in Chicago for so long and seemed to be extending into the Trestman reign, to see such a public fracas between two players we have been, correctly or incorrectly, led to believe by the sports media are best friends is bizarre. And I'm starting to suspect that there has been more going on we just didn't hear about, both because of the team's relative success and because it would fly in the face of the narrative. And there is nothing that sportswriters love more than the current narrative.
Tom: You know what my favorite part of this is?
Mike: What is your favorite part, Tom?
Tom: The Dolphins scored 27 points in nine possessions, plus they missed two field goals. Yes, they had the benefit of some short fields. But they also started three possessions inside their own 20. Those three possessions in Bears territory: 10 points on a touchdown, a field goal, and a missed field goal. Those three possessions inside their 20: two touchdowns and a missed field goal. Yet everybody's talking about the offense!
Mike: It is completely bizarre, I agree. I think everyone has resigned to the fact that the Bears' defense is bad. But that isn't fatal in the NFL anymore!
Tom: They're 12th in DVOA. They played well the week before against the Falcons.
Mike: So in some perverse way they are expecting the Bears to be a great offense/terrible defense contender like Ye Olde Colts. When in fact, the defense isn't that bad, and the offense isn't that good. But the narrative is that this is a team that will win shootouts. And everyone loves their narratives. But I digress.
What this taught me, along with Percy Harvin: Secret Hidden Locker Room Cancer (unmasked only upon trading) is that nobody knows anything about the clubhouse for any of these teams. They might get glimpses, but glimpses are even worse because they're used to build absolute narratives about a team's personality and character. From now on I'm just going to ignore it all.
Tom: Like xkcd said.
Mike: Why do you hate me so?
Tom: I'm a Titans fan. I am now powered by hate. It's just a question of who Ken Whisenhunt tells me to hate. After the Browns loss, it was the refs for two technically correct calls. After the Washington loss, it was apparently the media's pessimism.
For my lesson, though, it's funny you bring up Ye Olde Colts. For two seasons, they've cruised to the playoffs thanks largely to playing a pathetic schedule in a pathetic division. We covered in the preseason how they had a poor roster outside of a couple key positions. They had no pass rush last year outside of Robert Mathis, suspended for the first four games and then lost for the year. Then the Colts became a really good team.
Mike: Waaaait a minute.
Tom: Andrew Luck has gone from a really talented quarterback who was putting up average numbers to a really good one.
Mike: Yes, the Colts moved from 13th in DVOA to 5th after this week. We should always be skeptical of huge jumps like that. Especially based on big victories over teams Mike Kurtz has cursed.
Tom: Luck leads the league in passing DYAR. Yes, that's because Peyton Manning has had his bye and Luck hasn't. But Luck is fourth in DVOA, not mid-teens like he was the past two seasons. His sack rate, middle of the pack as a rookie but pretty good last year, is now at a Peyton Manning-like 3.4 percent. Trent Richardson is still averaging 3.5 yards per carry, but the Colts aren't letting that be a millstone around their necks.
As I mentioned last week, they're running as much as they can without risking the game, unlike past seasons when they ran as much as they wanted to. Yes, the run game is still bad, but the passing game is great and they're letting it carry them. Yes, the Bengals game was their best defensive performance of the season. But it was the third time in four games they had a pass defense DVOA of -30.0% or better. This is not an Atlanta situation, where the defense has been bad six out of seven games and is being buoyed by a single outlier.
Mike: So your lesson is how you stopped worrying and learned to love the dudebro?
Tom: No, my lessons is in two parts. Number one, it's time to accept Andrew Luck has made the proverbial leap. Number two, the Colts are not just an average team with a record pumped up by a soft schedule. Instead, they're a serious contender for the second-best team in the AFC behind the Broncos, and not just by default.
Loser League Update
Full scores for your team and standings for this week and this season are available on the Loser League results page. Each week, Scramble highlights the lowest scorers at each position.
Quarterback: It was a bad day to be an Ohio quarterback. Brian Hoyer threw for more yards than did Andy Dalton, but also turned the ball over twice more. Both passers finished with 6 points.
Running back: The Lions are first in run defense DVOA, the Broncos second. The Ravens are "only" sixth, but Steven Jackson is playing behind an injury-riddled offensive line that may not have been that great even if fully healthy. Matching his 2 points were backs that faced those other two teams, Mark Ingram and Frank Gore.
Wide receiver: Having four receptions and failing to gain more than 10 yards is more common than you might think; Robert Woods was joined by Darren McFadden in that club this week. Doing that as a wide receiver, though? Woods appears to be the first since Bobby Engram back in 2000 (Dexter McCluster was a back in 2011). Throw in a fumble, and you have a league-leading -1. Jason Avant, Kenny Britt, and Alshon Jeffery got to 0 more conventionally, with two short receptions each.
Kicker: With the Bengals getting shut out, Mike Nugent wa… oh, wait, we had a negative score. Yes, in a result that seems designed to showcase the cruelty of Loser League, Matt Bryant ending up just short on a 57-yard field goal attempt and not being allowed to attempt another field goal left him at -1, the Loser League kicker of choice for the week.
Keep Chopping Wood: That whole replay discussion could have been completely obviated, if only Tre Mason had played smart situational football and gone done immediately after getting the game-clinching first down against the Seahawks instead of continuing to run and diving forward for extra yardage 9 yards downfield.
Mike Martz Award: What happens when a coach has a good idea for a trick, but the rules don't let the trick actually work? Trailing 10-6 early in the fourth quarter against the Jaguars, Mike Pettine's Browns faced a fourth-and-5 at the Jacksonville 43. In an attempt to confuse the Jaguars, Pettine first sent his punt team out, then put his offense back on the field and tried to run a quick play. Oh, but NFL rules do not permit such a thing. If the offense substitutes, the defense must be given a chance to substitute. That left the Cleveland offense with no choice but to stand there and wait and wait. By the time they were finally allowed to snap the play, Jacksonville's defense was set and easily stuffed the conversion. If you're going to go for it, do not be afraid to just line up and go for it.
Sad Trombone Locks of the Week
Mike: $^#$^$ lock. I have no idea what is wrong with me.
Tom: I picked the Bengals in my straight-up league, so don't feel too badly.
Mike: No, it's all me.
Tom: Or at least don't feel too alone in your wrongness.
Mike: I am cursing these teams. I keep talking them up and then destroying them.
Wait a minute...
who are the Patriots playing...
Tom: At least the Bills managed a win, though they did not cover. I am 2-4, while you are 1-5. As a reminder, odds are courtesy of Pinnacle Sports and were accurate as of time of writing. All picks are made without reference to the FO Premium picks.
Tom: There are some...interesting lines this week. One that stands out is those same Indianapolis Colts against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Colts are the better team, but the Steelers are at home. The actual line looks like DVOA's suggested line without home field advantage.
But I'm instead going to go in another direction. With a bye week and better health, I think Philadelphia should be an improved team. While Arizona is 5-1, to my consternation, they've looked pretty average in getting there. They're 15th in DAVE and DVOA. Philadelphia is better than them.
Mike: And the ghost of Mike Tanier rattles the chains.
Tom: The Cardinals are favored by 2.5. DVOA suggests a closer line. Maybe my vituperation at Arizona is getting the best of me, but I like that number. Philadelphia Eagles +2.5 at Arizona Cardinals.
Mike: I'm going to go against my clearly unworkable strategy of "pick teams that are clearly better than their opponents in the weeks previous" and do some reverse-bandwagonning. The Seahawks are an excellent team, despite their recent struggles, and Carolina...well, the Panthers played to a tie this year. That says everything about them. Maybe by hitching my wagon to a team that is currently out of favor with the betting public I can resurrect my season!
...OK, I can't even say that with a straight face. Seattle Seahawks -4.5 at Carolina Panthers.
Send your questions and concerns to scramble-at-footballoutsiders.com! Note that by rule, some questions cannot be answered.