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Bobby Hart penalty vs. Falcons proves the NFL needs a replay process for flags

Bobby Hart’s penalty shows why the NFL needs a replay process for flags that, at least, impact scoring plays. But they need to fix the lengthy and convoluted replay process first.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Each Friday, the NFL releases instructional videos designed to review a handful of calls made during the previous week (they are truly informative and should be recommended weekly viewing). One of the plays was Bobby Hart’s illegal hands to the face with 9:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. The foul negated an A.J. Green nine-yard touchdown in a game Cincinnati was losing 33-28.

Here’s the officiating video (the Bobby Hart part starts around 3:13):

If you can’t watch, here’s the transcript:

“(Hart) is going to make contact with the head area of this defender (Brooks Reed),” said Senior Vice President of Officiating Al Riveron. “However, this is not a foul. This is not forceable contact, nor does he pin his head to the side or to the back. This is not forceable contact. This is not a foul. This is considered incidental contact. Not a foul.”

A better view:

The officials from Sunday’s game between the Bengals and Falcons made significant errors in judgement — the questionable off-sides on Tony McRae that negated a blocked field goal; linebacker De’Vondre Campbell holding Tyler Kroft, directly leading to a Demontae Kazee interception; a roughing the passer on Carl Lawson that led to a 30-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley. Those are just calls against the Bengals; I’m sure the Falcons have their own grievances.

Is there some grande NFL conspiracy designed to keep the Bengals from winning? No. That’s stilly.

Are officials struggling to keep up with the speed of the game, asked to do too much with increasing subjective viewpoints?

Yes. And it tends to make them look incompetent.

So how do we fix this?

My perspective on instant replay is broken into two radical viewpoints — replay everything (get the call right), or replay nothing (keep the game flowing).

According to Rule 15, Section 2, Article 4 of the 2018 NFL Rulebook, penalties are NOT subject for review with the exception of Rule 15, Section 2, Article 5(g): Number of players on the field at the snap, even when a foul is not called. The NFL added Article 5(f), which reviews the possible disqualification of a player — but not the penalty itself.

While reviewing each and every play in the NFL is unrealistic, penalties during significant moments of a game should be reviewed (only if a penalty was actually called). You could include plays like:

  1. Penalties that negate a scoring play, a turnover, or a third-down conversion;
  2. Pass interference — especially if they insist on making this a spot foul, not a 15-yard penalty.
  3. Roughing the Passer — we understand the overwhelming desire to protect quarterbacks; like mother ducks protecting their ducklings. Make sure those sensitive penalties are called correctly.

However, before we expand the list of reviewable plays, they need to address the questionable (and dumb) replay process.

  1. THE PLAY. The play is horribly called;
  2. THE CHALLENGE. A coach challenges the play or “the booth” initiates a review;
  3. THE PROCESS. Technicians at the stadium and at the Art McNally GameDay Central isolate the angles of the play;
  4. THE CONSULT. While officials on the field talk with the coaches and other officials, “senior designated members” examine the play at the Art McNally GameDay Central.
  5. THE REVIEW. The referee on the field will then review the replays, but it’s the “senior designated member of the officiating department” that will make the “final decision on the review.”
  6. THE DECISION. The official announces the ruling.

This process is convoluted and unnecessarily long, largely designed to implement protective layers against blame while jamming more commercials and advertising clips into the broadcast.

And making coaches use challenges is dumb. Coaches are armed with two challenges — a third if they correctly challenge the first two. If they’re wrong, they lose a timeout. There are even moments when coaches have mere seconds to review a play if the opposing team is expediting the next snap. Coaches will throw their red flag, not on the advice of council in the booth; rather to stop the ensuing play on the possibility that there was an error, especially plays with big gains. And it’s not like visiting head coaches have access to replays, since those plays aren’t typically displayed on the “Jumbotron” (home-field advantage). They rely on folks in the booth — adding seconds to a process designed to inform the head coach, the only person allowed to toss the “red flag”.

None of this has ever made sense.

College’s system is imperfect, but it’s way better. The booth initiates all reviews, reviews most plays including some penalties, and only stops the game if 1) they need more time or 2) a change is needed.

Clearly, college has their own issues.

For example, the University of Cincinnati endured a questionable roughing the punter penalty against the Ohio Bobcats recently. Ohio punter Michael Farkas dropped a first quarter snap. After scooping the football and concurrently punting it away, he almost instantaneously collided with Bearcats rusher Kimoni Fitz. Since the officials thought the punt was tipped (how was it NOT blocked), no flag was thrown. The referee clicked on his mic and said: “The ruling on the field is that the punt was tipped by the on-rusher defender, therefore there is no foul.”

That’s that, right?


Officials reviewed the play, presumably checking whether the punt was tipped. It wasn’t. Roughing the punter was retroactively called, gifting Ohio with a new set of downs — they scored a touchdown a few plays later. I’m not an expert on NFL or collegiate officiating. However, there are only specific penalties allowed via replay:

In addition, can a penalty be retroactively called, where one didn’t exist, based on external circumstances?

There are also moments in college when a constant barrage of replays simply crushes the momentum of a game. However, if officials made the correct call, or weren’t given unrealistic expectations (keeping up with the game and making the best subjective call), then those replays wouldn’t be necessary.

Again, the college replay system is imperfect. However, in the context of comparison: NCAA > NFL.

Unfortunately for the NFL, it’s 2018.

High-definition technology keeps improving, from 4K to 8K UHD and 8K fulldome. Every advancing technology improves resolution, making the broadcast clearer. There are more cameras, more angles, and more opportunities to wage harsh criticism against these poor officials. Then there’s the growing number of penalties that officials are responsible for, many taking perspective into account, and not necessarily judged by predefined set of conditions — aka, pass interference, roughing the passer. If two officials see the same play and make different calls, one of the officials should be replaced or the rule corrected.

Bobby Hart shouldn’t have been flagged for illegal hands to the face last week. But he was. Penalties with titanic implications should be reviewed. However, the current replay model doesn’t allow for much expediency and would slow the game to a crawl. So before penalties can be included into the league’s expanding list of reviewable plays, the NFL needs to fix the replay process first.

Unfortunately, their recent history “addressing” or “fixing” issues only leads one to conclude that they’ll screw it up even more.