The only good thing you can say about the NFL's replay system is that it's not as horrible as MLB's. Other than that, the league's challenge system is almost universally maligned, with its rules, methods, execution and decisions all coming under fire any time a red flag drops on the field. After Richard Sherman had a clear pass interference on a crucial pass to Julio Jones that went uncalled late in Sunday's Falcons-Seahawks game, there were once again renewed calls to alter the replay system to include some penalties. Everybody has opinions on how to improve the system. Here are the most discussed options along with the best suggestion for what the NFL should actually do.
Keep things the way they are.
Status quo. This may hold for a couple of years, but the NFL loves nothing more than to tinker with the rules, so I'd be surprised if there weren't at least some changes within the next two or three seasons.
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Allow replays for penalties, too.
The Bill Belichick recommendation: Review everything. The thought is that every part of the challenge system stays the same except all plays and penalties become reviewable, too. Everything.
This is an awesome idea -- if you want the NFL to be horrible and unwatchable. If you don't, it's pretty much the worst thing that could happen to the sport. The NFL is contending with a new generation of children who have attention spans shorter than Johnny Manziel's career. So the way to attract these viewers is to include even more stoppages in a game that features about 11 minutes of action anyway?
Look, I agree -- it stinks and is unfair when officials miss a call. The Sherman/Jones play kicked off this debate (again) for very good reason. The refs blew it. But I'll take a little human error over a Big Brother NFL that breaks down every single play like the Zapruder film. If players can make mistakes, why can't refs?
And this is the biggest problem with the "review everything" movement. Refs don't always get it right when they do look at replay. It's startling how often they're wrong. How many times have you heard Mike Pereira make his call and then watch a ref go a different way? This is difficult stuff to begin with. So if the system is already fallible and will never be 100 percent reliable. Why give officials more opportunities to screw up their screw-ups?
You have to think beyond the Sherman pass interference call. That was obvious. It's game-changing. It's maddening. It makes you demand change. But that's one play in six weeks of an NFL season. The vast majority of other penalty replays wouldn't be remotely as important. Instead, they'd clog up the games with unnecessary stoppages and give officials an almost impossible task.
Holding could be legitimately called on 95 percent of NFL plays -- no hyperbole. How are you supposed to review that? How does one interpret the subjective? Why wouldn't a coach whose team gets stuffed on a fourth-and-2 run then throw a challenge flag to say there was holding committed somewhere in the scrum. Chances are there was. There always is. What now? (This would happen. Why do you think Belichick wants it so badly? He'll figure out how to make the system work for him faster than anyone. It'll be a disaster.)
Okay, now imagine the poor ref going under the hood to look for pass interference on a Hail Mary. Now imagine Jeff Triplette doing it. Is that what the league wants -- to put its officials and their calls under an even more powerful microscope that'll basically serve up the zebras as cannon fodder?
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Take all reviews out of the coaches' hands.
Have all replays come from above. Perhaps the most unfair part of the challenge system is how conservative a coach needs to be in using it. If there's a close play early in the game, a coach is less likely to throw the flag for fear of losing and having only one more challenge the rest of the game no matter whether the second one is successful. Even calls that look like obvious reversals give pause because of the inconsistency in replay decisions and the fact coaches get a third challenge only if the both the first two are right. (The NFL should go to a tennis-like system: You don't lose a challenge if it's successful.)
Given that there are always reviews of touchdowns, turnovers and plays in the final two minutes, it's not crazy to believe the NFL could just expand the system to any play during the other 56 minutes of the game. This is a dangerous game, though. It's one thing to see a touchdown that's fairly close and put it under further scrutiny. Same thing with a turnover. People accept that. But will they if this is happening on all plays, like a 6-yard slant on first-and-10 that may or may not have been caught? The average replays per game hovers just under two. What would it be in universal review or if the calls came from the booth? Five? Six? Eleven? NFL games are taking longer than ever on average. Can the league take the risk to find out?
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Remove the on-field refs from any replay responsibility
Whatever the end result is for what can and can't be challenged, we can universally agree that the biggest thing the NFL needs to do is shorten the length of challenges. The best way to do that is to leave the referee out of it completely. There's no reason for anyone to believe a replay official working in the booth would make the replay process any less legitimate and impartial. (You could argue he'd be better. A ref might be slightly biased toward the decisions of his crew.) As it is now, there's communication between the referee and NFL officials, but it's the ref that makes the final decision.
Regardless, the whole affair takes way too long. You can text back-and-forth with multiple friends, debating, confirming, asking each other about your Saturday night and then predicting what's going to happen with the review, all before the call actually comes in. Viewers at home see multiple replays before the official sees one. It's crazy. One more thing: Why does a ref need to go over to the sideline to wear headphones to communicate with New York? There's no device -- like, say, a phone that has cellular capabilities -- that could speed things up? They can't text the result of the play (if they went with suggestion)? Have the sideline headphones as backup, sure. But every time? C'mon. Streamline the process, please.
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Let the replay official see one full-speed replay from every angle. That's it.
a.) Plays happen in real time. Catches happen in real time. Fumbles happen in real time. Nothing on the football field is ever done in slo-mo, except maybe Tom Brady scrambling. Why are plays not reviewed in real time?
b.) Plays are only supposed to be overturned if there's indisputable visual evidence -- thus it should take exactly one look at a replay (from different angles) to confirm or deny a call on the field. If you've looked at every available replay and can't tell what actually happened on a play, that inherently means you don't have the indisputable evidence to overturn. What is the fourth viewing of the same shot going to reveal?
c.) Honestly, I'd prefer replay didn't exist at all but I'm realistic. Replay itself is never going away. Now that it's out there, you can't stuff it back in that hooded box. But replay needs an overhaul, and that overhaul should never include a review of subjective penalty calls.