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Officiating In Focus: 5 Plays That Need To Become Reviewable

A few weeks ago, you read about the 10 worst officiating mistakes from the 2013 college football season. One of the enduringly frustrating aspects of officiating is not the officials themselves, who — like coaches and players and broadcasters and (yes) writers such as this one — are human beings. In other words, they are living creatures who try hard but are imperfect and make mistakes.

This is why replay exists — to correct those mistakes. Replay is a fundamental “second chance” in sports and, more precisely, officiating. There’s nothing wrong with missing a very close play (obvious plays are another matter), but when that bang-bang call is missed, replay is supposed to set things right.

Officials are not the problem in sports (though some will disagree). Replay errors represent a far deeper and more substantial problem. Worst of all, though, is the inability — as a result of policy — to make certain kinds of plays and outcomes non-reviewable. Here are five examples that stand out.

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5 – FORWARD FUMBLES

Play 91 in the 2014 college football case book, dealing with reviewable and non-reviewable plays, states that “A play involving a forward fumble out of bounds is only reviewable if the officials bring the ball back to the spot of the fumble and it involves the line to gain or the goal line.”

The notion that a forward fumble (a fumble on third and 14 could go forward for 12 yards — who knows?) can’t be reviewed unless under certain conditions can affect a given play and its down-and-distance details to a considerable extent. Why would policy not want to make this kind of a play reviewable? It makes very little sense. Teams might not get first downs as a result of reviews, but having fourth and two instead of fourth and five could very well turn out to be a big deal. The same goes for third and three instead of third and seven. Are those collections of yards not valuable?

4 – FAIR CATCH INTERFERENCE

Section, 3, Article 4 of the case book states: “Reviewable plays involving kicks include:

a. Touching of a kick

b. Player beyond the neutral zone when kicking the ball.

c. Kicking team player advancing a ball after a potential muffed kick/fumble by the receiving team.

d. Scrimmage kick crossing the neutral zone.”

Kicks, especially punts and kickoffs, involve all sorts of situations in which player safety is a concern. One is the jumping-the-shield rule, the penalty that cost Georgia a possession against Auburn last year (in the first half of the game). Not being able to review jumping penalties, instead making them automatic fouls without the possibility of further scrutiny, seems overly harsh to the team which committed a jumping foul. Such fouls, like a number of other rules on this list, should be subjected to replay review and the discretion of officials. If “jumping the shield” involves serious contact which endangers an opposing player, by all means the penalty should be enforced. If it doesn’t, however, there shouldn’t be a penalty, and a review process should be able to determine as much.

Getting back to fair-catch or kick-catch interference, if the right of a player to make such a catch is violated and the officials miss the call live, why shouldn’t the wronged team (and player) have the chance to see the call overturned upon review?

3 – RUNS THAT DO NOT GO OUT OF BOUNDS BUT ARE RULED OUT OF BOUNDS

Play 20 in the 2014 case book is a play in which a runner is ruled to have stepped out of bounds, but then continues downfield and is knocked out of bounds at an advanced spot on the field. The description of play 20 says, “the play is dead when the runner is ruled out of bounds.”

This is exactly what victimized North Carolina State against Clemson last year. Watch:

Officials should be able to look at a play and determine if the premature and errant whistle deprived the ballcarrier of a touchdown or, at the very least, additional yardage. A reasonable adjustment would give the replay booth reviewer a measure of discretion (there’s that word again: discretion) to award additional yardage if a runner is mistakenly whistled out of bounds before actually going out of bounds.

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2 – FIELD GOALS WHEN THE FLIGHT OF THE BALL GOES ABOVE THE TOP OF THE UPRIGHT

Section 3, Article 1-b of the case book states the following: “Field goal attempts (can be reviewed) if and only if the ball is ruled… (b) inside or outside the uprights when it is lower than the top of the uprights. If the ball is higher than the top of the uprights as it crosses the end line, the play may not be reviewed.”

This was unfortunate for Wisconsin, which got jobbed not just at the end of last year’s game against Arizona State, but in the first quarter as well. Arizona State kicked a field goal that was ruled good… but went above the top of the upright; appeared to be no good; and was unable to be reviewed.

Here is the video of the field goal attempt from ESPN.

This is an utterly absurd and pointless rule.

Is it easier to review a field goal that doesn’t fly higher than the upright? Of course. Yet, this doesn’t make above-the-upright kicks impossible to judge. If the ruling on the field is inconclusive, uphold it. This Arizona State kick, though, was not “between the uprights,” which — in the piece about the worst officiating mistakes from last year — is mentioned as the standard needed for good field goals.

1 – PASS INTERFERENCE

It’s only one of the three most important penalty calls in football, alongside personal fouls (especially contact-based fouls, particularly targeting) and holding penalties.

Pass interference calls, those made and not made, carry such enormous weight. As with the “above-the-upright” field goal ruling, it’s not going to be easy to review a lot of pass interference calls, but that’s part of the whole point of replay: If a play offers inconclusive camera shots, replay reviewers should simply — and quickly — uphold the play. It just doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

College football should impose a two-minute limit on every replay review. If clear evidence can’t be found within two minutes, the ruling on the field should stand. Yet, in those cases when it’s clear that pass interference occurred, replay should be able to be brought in, especially in the fourth quarter and even more especially in the last five minutes of regulation.

This shouldn’t be hard, but alas, college football’s replay policies make things a lot harder than they should be.

Maybe one of these years, the sport will get it right.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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