Column: Challenging the coach’s challenge
Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 22:10
Some coaches flippantly drop it on the field. Others valiantly let it fly 30 yards in a referee’s direction. Bill Belichick keeps it in his sock.
Ah, the red challenge flag: the most senseless tool at an NFL coach’s disposal.
Throughout the last few years, as baseball has reluctantly withheld from instituting instant replay, we’ve heard the same tired – albeit correct – lines in argument.
“The whole point is to get it right.”
“Mistakes hurt the integrity of the game.”
“The human element shouldn’t be a factor with the technology we have today.”
And yet, throughout the process, fans, writers, analysts and insiders everywhere have pointed to football as a shining example of how replay can help ensure accuracy when calls are made.
There’s only one problem.
The NFL has it all wrong.
Since 1999, the King of Sundays has been telling its minions on the sidelines that whenever they feel a call is in doubt, that little red flag is there as a lifeline.
Throw it and the play will be reviewed. Get it right and the call will be overturned in your favor. Get it wrong and you’ll lose an ever-precious timeout for wasting our time and making viewers sit through the exhaustive minute-long delay.
Oh, and by the way, you only get two tries – well, three if you get both of the first two right – so choose wisely and use sparingly.
For 14 years, the NFL has had its coaches playing a game within a game.
While coach’s challenges may indeed lead to the correction of some improper calls and help with the efficacy of officiating, the process is still a nonsensical ruse.
If the whole point of replay is to get the calls right, improve the integrity of the game and remove the human element, then the challenge system fails on all three counts.
Frankly, the system makes it all too easy for blown calls to be missed or just surrendered by the victimized coach.
Such was the case in Sunday’s Jets-Patriots game when New England, amidst a drive that was approaching midfield, was handed about seven yards on a “catch” that saw the receiver get just one foot in bounds.
While Rex Ryan didn’t challenge the call, which very clearly would have been overturned – it’s unclear whether he didn’t notice the referee’s error or decided that small chunk of territory was not worth using a challenge to defend – the point remains the same: a call was made incorrectly, yet it was not reversed due in large part to the challenge system.
The mistake did not affect the Jets – the Patriots punted two plays later – seven yards can very easily be the difference in keeping a drive alive and lead to points that shouldn’t be.
Every week, small mistakes like this rather innocuous example at MetLife pile up around the league and go relatively unnoticed and undisccussed. That doesn’t mean, however, that they aren’t an issue. Even minor mistakes that are made and left uncorrected hurt the credibility of officials and the league in a viewer’s eyes.
How can a system that’s purported to promote accuracy be taken seriously if it only works part of the time, on select occasions?
If the whole point of instant replay is to remove the human element from the game where technology can fill in the gaps, the challenge system may in fact do the opposite.
By, quite literally, putting the fate of each incorrect call in the hands of the head coaches and their discretion as to whether or not throwing the little red flag is a good idea, the system may actually enhance the role of the human element and error. At the very least, it stretches the human element into a realm of the game – video replay – that would seem best left to the technology.
In fact, the league indirectly acknowledges the ridiculousness of its own system twice in each game – the final two minutes of each half.
As any NFL fan knows, those final two minutes end the use of coach’s challenges and instead resort to the booth review, which is automatically instituted on any close play.
Essentially, the league is saying that within those two, two-minute windows, halting the use of the little red flags is the more accurate, efficient way to go.
Which begs the question: why are the final two minutes of each half more important than the first 28?
Why, when NFL games are often decided by one score, one point, one play, is there a premium placed on only four of the 60 minutes?
In a sport and a league where the margin for error is minuscule and the deciding play can come at any time, it is inexcusable not to get the calls right when doing so would require little extra effort.
Heck, it might actually require less effort. No longer would each team need a coach in charge of monitoring replays and deciding when challenges should be used. Instead, the league’s designated replay official for each game would take over that responsibility for the full length of the game.
Consolidation and efficiency at its finest.
But perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect of the NFL’s replay system is this: the NFL can’t get something right that even the notoriously broken college football world has managed to perfect.
Getting outsmarted by the bozos responsible for the BCS? Now that’s just sad.
Wave the white flag, NFL. It’s time for those little red flags to be surrendered.