An offensive lineman flinches on the game's final play. A line judge inadvertently blows his whistle. A timekeeper forgets to stop the game clock. A safety is penalized because an official thinks the safety grabbed the receiver's face mask.
These mistakes happen weekly in the NFL, not because of incompetence but because of the human condition. Officials are not perfect. They're human. But the league is finding itself under increasing pressure, both externally and inside its community, to extend the use of technology wherever possible to help.
That's why a Baltimore Ravens proposal to re-imagine instant replay has been under review for nearly two months inside the league office. The Ravens, stung by a missed call last season but also thinking globally about the future of the game, have suggested a system that makes most plays subject to review, with the exception of obvious judgment calls such as pass interference or holding. Currently, the NFL rule book specifies two dozen reviewable calls, and it's understood that all others -- the majority of plays encountered in a game -- are not.
The number and structure of challenges would remain the same: two for each coach, a third if the first two are right, and automatic reviews on scores and turnovers. But philosophically, the Ravens are pushing the league to address a basic question: Why does it allow objectively inaccurate, and eminently correctable, calls to stand?
"We can't fix it because we decide not to be able to fix it," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We can fix it. Just make it reviewable."
Although the NFL's competition committee agreed to study the idea, a rare acknowledgment of merit for a team-based proposal, it's unlikely the league will adopt it at next week's league meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. Instead, a negotiated compromise endorsed by the competition committee is the best-case scenario. The Washington Post reported that replay discussions at this meeting will center on ideas that are far more limited than the Ravens'.
Such a conclusion would be disappointing but not surprising for a league that tends to move slowly and incrementally amid calls for radical change. If nothing else, though, we can hope the Ravens have accelerated an inevitable shift in the purpose of replay and sparked an important discussion about how the league must evolve in the HD Era of sports viewership.
"We're adding one or two more reviewable things this year, then a couple more next year, and then it's 33 and then it's 36 and then 41 and then 50 things that are reviewable," Harbaugh said. "At some point in time, it's going to shift, and everything is going to be reviewable except certain categories. That's what our proposal says. So it's either going to be now or it's going to be soon."
Indeed, the Ravens' original proposal represents an important philosophical reversal: replay as a fundamental part of officiating rather than a supplement limited for certain situations.
The practical impact would be even more apparent. If adopted as the Ravens suggested, replay would minimize instances in which an obvious mistake can't be corrected because of what feels like an arbitrary exclusion. The goal, Harbaugh said, was simple: Make reviewable "anything that we felt clearly, black and white, can be looked at in review and you say, 'That is clearly [right or wrong].'"
The Ravens, of course, were burned last season, when officials missed a false start by the Jacksonville Jaguars on a play that would have ended the game. Instead, the Jaguars had one more play to convert a game-winning field goal.
False starts are not reviewable under the current system. Neither are illegal bats, a missed call that marred a Week 4 game between the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks. The same goes for inadvertent whistles, which we learned were not reviewable during a Week 11 game between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills.
"It will allow us to get it right," Harbaugh said. "There were five games last year that were determined by non-reviewable calls. ... The fans don't understand that. They don't want to look at that all week, to see that their team, the official made a mistake that everyone can see, that the fans saw in real time, that the league says it's not reviewable, and we can't fix it."
The Ravens' proposal smartly navigated some high-level NFL agendas and biases. Harbaugh, for example, couched the inclusion of potential face mask penalties as a matter of safety, a keyword that always lends credence to suggested league action. It also drew a strict line at judgment calls (check the chart for a full list), which is a non-starter among NFL owners who want to keep the most difficult officiating decisions in the hands of humans. Previous proposals to make all plays reviewable, from the Patriots and others, received scant attention because of that issue.
As I've written before, the HD Era requires fundamental change from all sports leagues. The Canadian Football League has pushed more aggressively, incorporating judgment calls into replay, without causing a collapse of the game, and this year will authorize a replay official to correct obvious mistakes in real time.
The NFL wouldn't dream of going that far, and in fact, I would be surprised if it adopted even the spirit of the Ravens' proposal next week. That's too bad, because it's time to start moving in that direction, and fast.
Mistakes will continue as long as humans are making decisions. But what's unnecessarily frustrating to fans, players and coaches alike is the willful refusal to embrace a method to avoid the most basic errors.
The NFL needs to stop worrying about invading the protected areas of officials and quit resisting the move toward technology-driven administration of games. Televised coverage of games has left only one path. Providing officials with the same view that fans get at home, as the Ravens' proposal at its core would do as much as possible, makes too much sense to ignore.