Expanded NFL replay draws mixed reviews

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 10:48 p.m.

Antonio Brown stretches high for a Ben Roethlisberger pass thrown near the Ravens sidelines. Climbing higher for the ball than a 5-foot-10 receiver should, Brown cradles it in his hands, only to lose possession as cornerback Lardarius Webb yanks hard on his jersey.

Only there's no penalty — the field judge is a bit late getting downfield and is screened from the obvious pass interference as Brown and Webb collide. No other official moves in to throw a flag.

Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley start yelling on the Steelers bench. Backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski tosses his headset in disgust. The millions of fans watching on TV realize it's a penalty, and so do most of the 65,500 inside Heinz Field.

Obviously, the replay team watching at the NFL's new Central Command center in New York will correct this egregious error, right?

Uh, no.

The centralized replay system adopted by NFL owners last week in Orlando, Fla., is designed to speed up reviews, improve accuracy and correct some blown calls — like the touchdown referee Jeff Triplette mistakenly awarded the Bengals last season when BenJarvus Green-Ellis was tripped up before crossing the goal line.

But while having the league office overseeing replay represents the most dramatic change to the process since the NFL became the first major pro sports league to adopt a replay system in 1986, not every wrong will be made right.

The replay system is expanding, but what can be reviewed will stay the same, except that control of a loose ball is subject to review. But centralized replay can't retroactively assess a holding penalty, a roughing the passer call or correct an inadvertent whistle.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher, a member of the league's influential competition committee, said the NFL will constantly analyze the replay process in an effort to make it better. But he also said less than 50 percent of the coaches agreed with Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Ravens coach John Harbaugh that any play should be reviewable.

“With technology changing, the fact that the membership agreed to allow Dean Blandino (the NFL vice president of officiating) and his group to oversee and consult with officials is a major step,” Fisher said. “We are constantly evaluating our replay system because we all want to get things right.”

It's a step forward to Harbaugh but not enough of one because, he said, “When the fans have a better view of the game (on TV) than the referee does, it's time to put the referee in the same playing field as the fans.”

So how will the new, albeit not all-encompassing, replay system work?

NFL clubs were told that as soon as a referee announces a challenge, he will talk with Blandino or senior director of officiating Alberto Riveron, who will begin the review in New York even before the referee goes under the replay hood. The replay official in the press box will be consulted as to which TV angles should be shown to the referee.

Because New York can start looking at a play almost immediately, the league believes it will speed up the replay process.

While the NFL insists the referee will make the final call, some coaches, general managers and owners are skeptical because they believe most, if not all, calls will be decided by New York.

Referees, they believe, will not want to go against their bosses.

The NFL's adoption of centralized replay, and the NBA's plan to do so by next season, means that the four major pro sports leagues all will have such systems by next year.

No doubt the NFL was motivated to improve its system following several major officiating missteps last season — and not just the one in which Tomlin wasn't penalized for impeding kick returner Jacoby Jones in Baltimore, only to be fined $100,000 by the league a few days later.

There also was an improperly moved first-down marker during the Giants-Redskins game, an incorrect play clock reset in Eagles-Cowboys and, of course, an uncalled illegal formation against the Chargers on a final-week Chiefs field goal attempt that, if successful, would have sent the Steelers to the playoffs.

For those fans who say an extra official would help, the league is weighing whether to experiment with eight-man crews during the preseason, according to the NFL Network.

Tomlin said officials don't get enough credit for doing a remarkably hard job exceptionally well — most of the time. It's those other times that trouble coaches, players and fans alike.

“I think it (centralized replay) is a good idea because the bottom line is we want to get it right,” Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The more people that look at plays that are being reviewed, the better chance of getting it right.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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