The NFL’s stupid, byzantine rule book got in the way of our ability to enjoy the sport again last weekend. This time, Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin had a sensational touchdown catch against the Patriots taken away by a replay cop stationed back at headquarters in New York, and even one of the officials on the field had no idea why.
Get a load of this mic’d-up clip that aired Tuesday night on Showtime’s Inside The NFL. Per Pro Football Talk, the official talking to Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and then to Bills head coach Sean McDermott is down judge Mark Hittner:
Hittner didn’t make the call on the field that ruled Benjamin had scored a touchdown; field judge Steve Zimmers did. But Hittner thought it looked good. “That’s a helluva throw, and a catch, I thought,” he told Taylor. “How is that incomplete?” McDermott asked Hittner. “I don’t know,” came the reply.
The NFL changed its replay rules this year to centralize decision-making authority with “a designated member of the Officiating department at the League office.” That replay official at central command is charged with consulting with the referee on the field, who in turn is charged with discussing the play with the official on the spot, who in this case would have been Zimmers.
But here’s the rub. Rule 15-2-3 states this (emphasis in the original text): “A decision will be reversed only when there is clear and obvious visual evidence available that warrants the change.”
Was the visual evidence “clear and obvious” upon review? During the game, CBS aired replays from several angles:
As the play was being reviewed, broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo initially disagreed as to whether this was a catch; Nantz thought Benjamin caught it, while Romo wasn’t so sure. But the more the network aired different angles that included pause effects and close-ups, the more Romo came around to the idea that the evidence wasn’t conclusive enough to meet the league’s own “clear and obvious” standard. “I would keep it,” Romo said. “I would stand and I’d say, ‘Touchdown, Buffalo,’ based on the evidence you saw, just because it’s hard to overturn it ... The conclusive evidence is difficult.” Nantz agreed.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether Benjamin’s left foot was still on the ground by the time he secured the ball. But there’s nothing clear and obvious in any of these replays.
It wasn’t just biased observers like Bills owner Terry Pegula who thought the league got this one wrong. Fox officiating analyst Dean Blandino—the NFL’s former senior VP of officiating—did, too:
As did Blandino’s Fox colleague and predecessor at the league office, Mike Pereira:
Keeping the call on the field likely would have done nothing to prevent the Patriots from flattening the Bills in the second half, just as they wound up doing. But centralized replay was supposed bring better clarity to the review process. Instead, like the catch rule, it’s proving to be just another mechanism that sows confusion, leads to screw ups, and takes the emphasis away from actual players on the field and puts it on philosophical questions about how anyone can ever really know anything. Can’t wait for next year, when the league will no doubt come up with a reactive and hyper-specific “fix” that will continue to make things worse so we can do this all over again.