The NFL's plan to centralize replay review is best viewed as the formalization of a trend that has developed during the past three years. Let's take a closer look at what we know about how the process will unfold during the 2017 season.
What's the big takeaway here?
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed this week, including Thursday via ESPN Radio, that senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino will make the final decision on all replay reviews. (Update: Goodell must be confident that the change will meet the approval of NFL owners, who meet next week in Phoenix.)
Wait, wasn't Blandino already doing this?
Technically, no. Realistically, in many cases, yes.
Well, give me a second to explain.
How did the process work before now?
Since the start of the 2014 season, Blandino and several other league officials monitored games from their New York-based GameDay Central room. There were enough people involved to alert Blandino, or senior director of officiating Al Riveron, to a controversial call even before a challenge was initiated. So by the time the referee stopped the game and arrived at the sideline hood, Blandino or Riveron usually had seen the play and had begun forming an opinion.
So who made the final call?
By rule, that responsibility rested with the referee. But Blandino was in a position to impose a strong influence.
Sure. Say you went to the office to fix a problem and found that your boss was already there with a proposed solution. You would need a pretty compelling reason to go in a different direction, right? The same concept applies here. That's not to say Blandino dictated every replay decision of the past three seasons. But it's reasonable to assume he was able to direct many of them based purely on the convenience of his position in front of the screen.
So are the on-field referees completely looped out?
No. The hood will disappear -- long live the hood! -- but a member of the NFL's GameDay staff will deliver a video tablet to the referee. He will view all replay angles on that device and be in verbal communication with Blandino via a wireless headset. So the referee will have a consult and also be in a position to explain why the decision was made.
Are there any other changes?
Yes. According to Goodell, referees will announce the decision to the stadium -- even if the game broadcast is in a commercial break -- as soon as it is ready. In 2016, the average time of review was 43 seconds. Advertisements can take up to two minutes.
Is this a better approach?
Goodell said Thursday that he thinks the process will move "much quicker" and contribute to a leaguewide effort to accelerate the pace of games. That makes intuitive sense given the technology involved.
Is speed the only benefit?
Theoretically, no. With one person responsible for all decisions, replay reviews can be more consistent. Blandino has championed a standard of identifying a "clear and obvious" mistake for overturning any call via replay. The subjective nature of that standard means it can be interpreted differently from referee to referee. It is more likely to be uniform if it is centralized through one person.
What's the downside here?
Off-field authority for game management adds a level of uncertainty and mystery to a process that has traditionally played out in front of our eyes. Whether we agreed with their decisions, we could see and identify the people responsible for making them. Transferring some of that power to officials who operate behind closed doors by definition adds uncertainty and could subtract transparency.
So you're saying this could spawn more conspiracy theories?
In a worst-case scenario, someone with an agenda could advance it much more efficiently if he had direct access to every game.
Could that really happen?
I mean, if you want to spend your time worrying that nefarious forces are favoring Team X and targeting Team Y, well, go ahead. (Based on what I see during the season, many of you already are.)
So what's the bottom line here?
Other than replacing the hood with the tablet, these changes won't be hugely noticeable to outside observers. They do represent a good chance to be more efficient and consistent, however. Over time, replay decisions based on a well-publicized standard will make sense even if we don't agree with them.