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Rugby does officiating right. The NFL does not. Photo from Getty Images

NFL: To Eliminate Blown Calls, Look to Rugby

Rugby does officiating right. The NFL needs to add a TMO to their officiating crews.

The Patriots, that scrappy underdog team from a small town in Massachusetts, fell victim to The Establishment yet again last night, this time in the form of blown calls. In the second quarter of New England’s matchup with the reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs, the Pats’ Chase Winovich made one of the clearest strip-sacks I’ve seen in my twenty-plus years of watching football. His teammate Shilique Calhoun grabbed the ball—in midair, mind you—and took off toward the end zone, only for the play to be blown dead. Why? Because…this man had had his forward progress stopped.

Patrick Mahomes fumble ruled not a fumble
Not a fumble.

The Patriots had no recourse, in part because the Chiefs hurried up and punted, and in part because the ref had already blown the play dead before Calhoun could run it back for a score.

Blown calls. They suck. But we can fix this.

Rugby

The rugby TMO, or Television Match Official, and its slightly less useful soccer counterpart the VAR (Video Assistant Referee), offer a solution. Despite the terrible names—European and Commonwealth countries love giving things stupid names—these systems are a far better way of integrating video review into officiating than our ridiculous approach that allots a set number of challenges to each team at the start of the game.

The TMO is essentially another referee to whom the on-field ref can defer on calls they’re unsure about. I’m more of a rugby fan than a soccer fan, and from what I can tell the rugby TMO is less controversial than the VAR, so I’ll focus on the former here. Feel free to sound off in the comments if your favorite team lost to Newsouthhamfordshire or whatever because of the VAR.

Transparency abounds, as viewers of the broadcast can hear the whole conversation between the on-field ref and the TMO. Rather than requiring conclusive video evidence that the Call on the Field should be overturned, the decision that the TMO and on-field ref make is based just on what they think is the right call. Plus, we don’t have to bother with any of these silly coach’s challenges. They slow the game down and restrict the potential number of correct calls in a game.

Retire the Red Challenge Flag

Photo from masslive.com

Rugby is clearly a very different game from its American cousin. American football can still learn something from rugby, though. The TMO model would improve NFL games and take them out of the hands of imperfect referees and the overly-rigid system they operate in. It would reduce, and potentially eliminate, blown calls.

As it stands, teams are limited to two challenges and subject to the tyranny of the refs’ human error—the Call on the Field and the Whistle That Blew the Play Dead. By introducing another official who has instant access to replay and is in constant communication with on-field officials, the NFL can solve both of these problems and cut down on blown calls.

In January of 2019, the Rams advanced to the Super Bowl due almost entirely to a non-call on blatant pass interference by Nickell Robey-Coleman. The play wasn’t “reviewable”—a candidate for the worst word in sports—because it was a question of whether there was a penalty. New rules sort of solved that narrow problem of potential PI calls. However, they ignored the more fundamental problem that the Call on the Field and the Whistle reign supreme.

Under a TMO system, one of the on-field officials would have unceremoniously asked for the TMO’s opinion. This would undoubtedly have resulted in a very quick decision that it was PI. The Rams wouldn’t have sniffed the Super Bowl. Blown calls shouldn’t decide Super Bowl appearances.

Limitless “Challenges”

The NFL has in the last decade tried to dampen some of the worst effects of its two-challenge system by automatically reviewing every scoring play and every turnover. In many cases though, that’s not enough.

I hate to be *that* Patriots fan, but the last time the Pats played the Chiefs they were screwed out of a touchdown. N’Keal Harry was called out of bounds, despite there being a full inch of green turf between him and the sideline. Since the Call on the Field wasn’t a scoring play, there was no automatic review. Because Bill Belichick was out of challenges, the revered Call on the Field had to stand. If the on-field refs could have deferred to a TMO, the issue would have been resolved in fifteen seconds when he took one look at the play and determined it was a touchdown.

The TMO would eliminate the entire concept of being “out of challenges.” Instead, referees would would simply get the call right. No more red challenge flags.

Let the Play Go On

Getting the call right also means ending the Tyranny of the Whistle That Blew the Play Dead. In rugby, refs are much more comfortable letting play continue. Why? Because they know the video official can make a ruling once the play ends.

This is not the case in football. The reason our friend Bill Belichick was out of challenges was because he’d spent his second one already. Earlier in the half, Bill threw the red flag when officials incorrectly ruled that Travis Kelce was down, and had not fumbled. While Bill’s challenge got the Patriots the ball, it could not account for the fact that Stephon Gilmore almost certainly would have scored if he’d been allowed the run-back that was Blown Dead by the Whistle.

The Tyranny of the Whistle ultimately stems from the Tyranny of the Call on the Field. As it stands now, NFL refs are under an obligation to make split-second decisions on plays like this. They know whatever they decide will be the default ruling on any review. It’s important to note the review is not about what the right call is, but about whether to overturn the original call.

The TMO releases refs of this burden and allows them to admit there’s plenty they don’t and can’t know. With a TMO, they don’t have to make a Call on the Field on a play like that Kelce fumble. Instead, they could let Gilmore continue the return as far as he can get. They don’t have to make a definitive call on the fumble until receiving input from the TMO. The league needs to offer an alternative to refs making the decision to definitively end the play and arrive at a Call on the Field. Until then, these kinds of premature whistles will continue.

A TMO for Other Sports?

The NFL is unmatched in its ability to produce terrible calls. But other American professional leagues could stand to introduce a TMO as well, to varying degrees.

Hockey

Photo from Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

Since I’ve already filled this article with Boston fan grievances, here’s another one: Game 5, Stanley Cup Finals, 2019. The Bruins trailed the Blues by a goal in the third period, until Tyler Bozak tripped Noel Acciari in the Bruins’ zone. This lead directly to a Blues goal that wound up being the game-winner. It was such a blatant trip that Bozak immediately turned around to start complaining to the ref. Non-penalties aren’t “reviewable,” so the Bruins had no recourse. If the refs had had a little man in their ears telling them no, that shouldn’t have been a goal, but rather a penalty on Bozak, the whole series might have turned out differently.

Basketball

Reviews in the NBA are by far the most soul-sucking. To the extent that a TMO would speed things up would be an improvement. However, the unbelievably tedious nature of, say, the review to determine whether a foul was flagrant or whether it was a charge or a blocking foul, is not so much a problem of the review as it is a problem of the foul rules. Can’t do much there. The game is just too fast-paced and involves too many referee decisions.

Baseball

Baseball is the sport that has entertained the most radical officiating change—the robot umpire—at the independent league level. This change would should spark riots if it were ever implemented in MLB. Balls and strikes should always be the sole purview of the home plate umpire. Most baseball reviews deal with bang-bang base-running plays. While there aren’t too many mistakes, it seems like a good portion of those wrong calls would be fixed if the decision to review them were independent. Baseball is definitely the lowest-priority TMO destination, but it would still improve the game on the margins.

A Better World is Possible

America’s professional sports, and the NFL in particular, suffer from poor officiating. That’s a fact. A TMO would alleviate some of the most common headaches that leagues face. There needs to be limits on the video referee, of course. A panopticon-based officiating regime is in no one’s interest, and some calls are just too inconsequential to require review.

This is about the consequential calls, though. We don’t want our teams subjected to the cruel and arbitrary rulings of the Call on the Field and the red challenge flag. Enough of that already. No more blown calls.