A break with tradition on replay

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- After further review, NFL owners decided Wednesday to expand replay reviews to turnovers and extend the postseason overtime rules to the regular season, making sure both teams get possession in the extra period.

This is a significant change for pro football. Perhaps the most amazing switch is how traditionalists have given way to more populist positions. Opposition to replay officiating had been an owners meetings tradition.

In the past, the Brown family in Cincinnati and the Bidwills in Arizona spearheaded a block of negative replay votes that could grow as high as seven. In most years, all they had to do was sway two votes to kill an escalation in replay officiating or the whole process itself.

On Wednesday, the voice of opposition was so minimal that the competition committee asked for a show of hands for those opposed and opposition was almost nonexistent. The "yeas" silenced the "nays." It was similar for the overtime adjustment.

The proposal that drew the most opposition was the Buffalo Bills' suggestion to take replay officiating out of the hands of the referee and move it fully into the replay booth. The Bills were about the only team supporting that move, but don't think they aren't visionaries with their proposal.

They see the trend. Last year, replay officials were given the ability to review all scoring plays. This year, they will review all turnovers. The next step is having replay officials do all the reviews. The Bills see it coming. Eventually, all replays will be decided by a booth official.

Perhaps the holdup is waiting for 32 teams to have total confidence in the 17 replay officials. Replay officiating started with officials in the booth, but many of them were retired officials who weren't used to using television clickers and replay machines. Replay officiating died at one point, but it came back with referees doing the replay reviews on the field.

Over the past few years, the league has been trying to upgrade the replay officials. According to one source, 11 of the 17 replay officials are top notch. Until the other six catch up and gain the confidence of coaches, general managers and owners, the Bills won't win their campaign, but you can see the league is heading in that direction.

Addressing scoring plays and turnovers takes a big percentage of the reviews into the booth.

"I think if you would include scoring plays and turnovers, that would account for about 70 percent of the reviews," said Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the competition committee.

Reviewing every turnover is going to slow down the game, but the competition committee doesn't believe it will damage the game. Committee chairman Rich McKay of the Falcons said the change to having all scoring plays reviewed added only one second to an average game that now lasts 3 hours, 6 minutes.

In fact, McKay thinks the turnover reviews could speed up the game because there will be fewer coaches' challenges and it will take a replay official less time than a referee to review the play.

"Potentially it could speed up the game," McKay said. "We think in the turnovers we'll have the same effect as the scoring plays. It's pretty much even."

McKay says the difference is television. The competition committee reviewed numerous instances in which there was a turnover and then the networks went to a commercial. After the commercial, a coach would throw a replay challenge flag and the game would slow down even more.

"That really slows down the game, and you'll have none of that," McKay said, adding it was a change made that wouldn't add additional game time.

Under the new regular-season overtime rules, each team would be given the chance to possess the ball. The only exceptions would be if a touchdown is scored or if the defense forces a safety. If a team that receives the overtime kickoff drives for a field goal, the other team also will get a possession.

Coaches pushed for this change because they didn't like having one set of rules for the playoffs and another in the regular season.

"I see why, because you play by a set of rules the whole year, but when you get to playoffs -- the most important time of the year -- and you change it," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, a member of the competition committee. "If that's going to be the way it is, why not make it consistent through the year? Look at us. We had four overtime games last year. If we had an overtime game in the playoffs, it would be a different situation."

Three other rule changes were passed. There will now be a 10-yard penalty if a player illegally kicks a loose ball. For safety reasons, the owners voted to give defenders who receive crackback blocks the same protection as wide receivers, considering them defenseless players who can't be blindsided. Such a hit would result in a 15-yard penalty.

If a defense is caught with too many men on the field -- particularly in the final minutes -- the 5-yard penalty is now a dead ball foul so the victimized team doesn't lose time off the clock.

Seven important bylaw proposals were tabled until the May meetings in Chicago. That list includes expanding the offseason roster from 80 to 90 players, extending the trade deadline from Week 6 to Week 8, allowing a team a chance to bring an injured player back from injured reserve after eight weeks and giving teams an extra active roster spot if a player has a concussion.

Those proposals could be passed in May. As was evident Wednesday, owners seem to be willing to consider change.