While up 3-0 in the first quarter, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense forced a 4th and 1 against the New Orleans Saints. It was a crucial game for the Steelers — a loss would knock them out of a playoff spot heading into Week 17. There was no room for mistakes.
The officiating crew didn’t get the memo.
This phantom call on Joe Haden shifted the momentum of the game. Mark Ingram ran for a touchdown on the next play. Instead of the Steelers forcing a turnover on downs, the Saints got the ball at the goal line. The Steelers went on to lose the game 31-28.
Some will argue that the Steelers made plenty of mistakes later on that cost them the game — like a failed fake punt and two crucial fumbles. While true, this poor call still put them at an unfair disadvantage. The NFL cannot continue to have mistakes like this diminish the integrity of the game.
It is unreasonable to simply expect the referees to do better. They are the best available individuals for officiating football. It takes an incredibly long time, along with rigorous training, to work your way up to become an NFL referee. Professional football officials are about as good as they come.
The fact of the matter is that no amount of training will eliminate human error.
On the play in the Steelers-Saints game, the back judge (behind Haden) most likely saw Haden extend his arms onto Kamara’s back. The replay shows that Kamara attempted to jump, but he clearly did not jump as high as he could have. There’s no way that Haden actually restrained Kamara’s leaping ability, so it is far more likely that Kamara intentionally acted like he did in order to sell the call.
It’s a horrible decision, but it does make sense from a certain perspective. Especially because referees don’t see the world in slow-motion. Everything happens incredibly quickly.
This is human error. It will never be eradicated because humans are not perfect.
Therefore, the answer to the problem is to minimize our reliance on humans.
At the Art McNally GameDay Central in New York, the NFL uses powerful technology and communications equipment to consult with replay officials and game officials at each NFL stadium on all instant replay decisions.
98.9% of plays in games don’t require an instant replay review. However, certain plays do require a second look. Reviews can be initiated by the head coach of a team via a challenge (they are allowed to challenge two plays per game) or the replay official (any play after the two-minute warning, scoring plays, and turnovers).
Once the review is initiated, replay technicians in New York use NFL Vision software to analyze the play in question and consult with replay officials (present at every NFL game) and referees. From there, a senior designated member of the officiating department will make the final decision. The referee will then announce this official ruling and the game can resume.
The review process is extremely thorough and nearly always results in the correct decision.
Of course, this process is not used for flags.
The NFL should extend the Art McNally GameDay Central’s usage to penalty flags. However, they must do it carefully. They could just review every single play and look for flags. Nobody would want to watch that, though. Maintaining an enjoyable viewing experience is obviously a priority for the NFL. The average instant replay review takes less than 2 minutes and on average, only 1-2 full reviews occur per game.
Therefore, the league should simply start by reviewing pass interference calls. The technicians in New York have live footage of the games and should be allowed to tell the game referee if the call was correct or not. Defensive pass interference calls are the hardest to spot in real-time while also the most important — the offense gets the ball from the spot of the flag, which could be as much as 99 yards away. They can completely change the game, so it would be foolish for the NFL to not use the state-of-the-art technology to minimize the human error in the game.
This isn’t to say that the GameDay Central’s replay technicians should search for a pass interference penalty on every play. No, their job should be to review the penalties called by the game referees.
After all, we all know that senior officers of the officiating department at the Art McNally GameDay Central were shaking their head at the phantom call on Joe Haden. Shouldn’t we allow them to do something about it? Or will we allow an even more important game to be decided because of a problem that can be easily solved?