By Lisa Zimmerman
(Oct. 7, 2001) -- It is a stadium booth that looks much like any other -- an unassuming room with several seats, television monitors and sundry technical equipment. However, at game time the door is closed and locked with a big sign spelling it out: "Positively No Visitors."
Welcome to the world of NFL instant replay.
Instant replay originally was introduced in the NFL in 1986. At that time, a replay official was empowered to stop the game whenever he chose to and change the call, which took control away from the officials on the field. Ultimately, the system didn't live up to its intentions and was abandoned after six seasons.
The new Instant Replay system, implemented in 1999, was altered in a number of ways so that only plays that can be judged objectively are eligible to be ruled on. With the coaches responsible for making the challenges and risking losing timeout if they do, the flow of the game is not impeded nearly as much as the former system. Most importantly, it allows the official on the field an opportunity to change his own decision.
Mike Pereira, the current director of officiating for the NFL, spent several years as an on-the-field official before going to work in the league office.
"We tried to stay to facts," said Pereira. "The facts are boundary lines, the facts are the goal line where you have some really non-judgmental calls to make. If we put in pass interference for example, that is such a difficult judgment call, somebody's going to challenge that and the referee's opinion is going to be different than the side judge's opinion so you're going to have a hard time getting a consensus."
Essential to the process are the four people in the replay booth: the Replay Assistant, the Video Operator, the Technician and the Communicator. The Replay Assistant watches the game live on the field and via a monitor of the televised broadcast. Each time the ball is snapped, the Technician immediately tapes the play and any additional angles that are shown on television. The plays go to a touch-screen in front of the Assistant, which he in turn sends to a replay monitor so the Operator has instant access to control the play when it needs to be reviewed.
During a challenge, the Assistant communicates by headset with the Head Referee, who will make the final decision, regardless of which official made the original call. The Assistant sends each available angle of the play to the Operator one at a time -- with the number of angles dependent upon how many are being shown by the network.
The Operator sends each one to the referee's screen on the field (one at a time) and controls the actual playing of the video per instructions from the Assistant who conveys the requests of the referee. The referee may ask to see an angle several times. He also indicates if he wants it played at a slower or faster speed.
It should be noted that both the replay and field officials use the same footage viewers at home see. There are no separate NFL cameras. Whatever the network captures and airs is what is used for replay.
Often it seems as though the referee has exceeded his 90-second time limit for the review. In fact, the video is stopped immediately when the time has lapsed but discussion may continue regarding ball placement, status of the clock, what down it is, yards to be marked off, etc.
During the game, the Communicator makes sure the Assistant always knows what is happening on the field, especially if he is watching the monitors. He also listens to the broadcast of the game and can relate what the announcers are discussing. During a replay, the Communicator is the liaison between the replay booth and the TV truck and notifies the truck the moment a decision on a challenge is reached. He is also responsible for tracking how much time is left on the replay clock so the Assistant knows and can apprise the Referee.
There is always a slight air of tension in the replay booth, which becomes heightened at the two-minute warning as the Assistant is now solely responsible for deciding whether or not a play is reviewed so it is in his hands whether or not the game is stopped. (This part of replay was done to avoid giving coaches additional means of manipulating the clock within the two-minute mark.)
Dean Blandino has worked as a replay assistant since the new system was installed. He described the general climate during that part of the game.
"Once the two-minute warning comes everyone in the booth kind of tenses up because now you know that at any time, any play can be in question. The majority of time the offense is in a hurry up so you have only 10-12 seconds per play to make a decision. It becomes a whole different atmosphere."
There are those who question replay and cite the fact that other sports don't use it. There also are those who are concerned that it affects the flow and duration of the game.
"You're comparing apples and oranges when you compare other sports," Pereira said. "Football teams play only 16 games. In football, every loss is critical to a team's playoff chances [which is not the case in the other major sports]. If we can correct an obvious error that may cost a team a game then we need to have that system.
"Last year," he continued, "we had an average of one stoppage per game which lasted three minutes. It wasn't really obtrusive and we corrected 84 plays. We want the game decided by the players. We want the victory to be a deserved victory. And, the fans are interested in it. Fans are voting about the play online, TV is not taking breaks. It's become a piece of the game."
As for the officials themselves, for the most part, they are supportive. Bill Carollo has officiated in the NFL for the past 13 years and has been a Head Referee for the last three of those.
"[The officials] know that we just can't see everything and our intent, our goal, is to get every call right. Of course a coach isn't going to challenge it unless he thinks it's an important play. So, this gives us the opportunity to look at a play and fix a mistake that we made.
"The key," he continued, "is that we need indisputable evidence. If you think he scored, that's not good enough, you have to prove that he scored. I have to prove our guy wrong. Replay gives us a chance to prove that we're right 98 percent of the time.
As for the sign and the locked door, well, on occasion people affiliated with a team may try to get in, in an attempt to ... share their own opinions about a call, and the results of a challenge. Sorry, it's the officials on the field who make the decisions -- and those are final.