The NFL is closely watching CFL's pilot program of replay review

September 1, 2016, 8:01 AM

— -- TORONTO -- The sun has set outside the Canadian Football League's headquarters, perched on the third floor of a red brick warehouse near the eastern edge of this city. It's 10:45 p.m., halfway through a long night of work, and Marc Cobb is staring at the 20-inch video screen on the table in front of him.

The Calgary Stampeders and BC Lions are slugging it out some 2,500 miles away in Vancouver, a listless matchup that will end in a 37-9 Stampeders victory, when Cobb sits up straight. He begins barking into his headset.

"Other hash, Timmy! Other hash! Ball goes on the other hash!"

On the screen, the Lions are still huddling. If you watch closely, you can see referee Tim Kroeker nod, pick up the ball, and move it to the far hashmark. Play continues without interruption. Few realize that the CFL's eye in the sky has rescued the spot.

Jake Ireland, a retired referee and CFL Hall of Fame member, is sitting to Cobb's right. He gives a demonstrative thumbs-up. Darren Hackwood, the CFL's director of officiating, is excited as well. "Great catch, guys," he says as the Lions line up for their next play.

The future of football officiating at the game's highest level has arrived, courtesy of the CFL.

On this warm August evening, Cobb is the CFL's video official. Sitting in the league's tiny Command Centre, a 12-by-20-foot room separated from the rest of the league office by a glass wall, he is empowered to fix obvious mistakes while watching the same high-definition broadcast that fans see at home. He can overrule unreviewable penalty calls, alert referees to administrative errors, and ensure accurate identification of players who commit fouls.

The pilot program, part of the CFL's dramatic expansion of replay review in 2016, is being watched closely by the NFL. It is not without its faults and limitations, and CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge used the word "trialing" to describe the experiment. But it is an effort that all sports leagues will consider over time as a method for marrying technology with tradition in the era of HD home viewership.

"We are starting to service a group that has much greater expectations on levels of accuracy based on what they see," said Glen Johnson, the CFL's senior vice president of football. "I fundamentally believe that when you're watching the game at home, you don't care about, 'Oh, yeah, the official is out of position. Rats. Oh well.' It's, 'I just saw, on my fancy expensive television, that the call is clearly wrong. I don't understand why they can't fix it. I don't get it.' So that's what we're focused on here."

Using technology to 'close that gap'

The CFL's moderate size allows it to be flexible and nimble in ways that the larger and more heavily scrutinized NFL cannot. Orridge considers the league to be "a big enough brand to have significant equity, but small enough to be nimble and to be able to investigate and adopt innovation."

The video official project is the latest stage in an approach that started in 2013, when the CFL added defensive pass interference to its list of reviewable plays.

It marked a foray into reviewing more than simple objective calls such as ball possession and whether a pass is complete. Pass interference is a judgment call that traditionally relies on an official's instantaneous assimilation of the action relative to rules. NFL owners, for one, have no appetite for taking it away from on-field personnel. But after three trial seasons of practice in the CFL, Johnson felt confident about its progress -- boosted in large part by a critical turn of events in the 2015 Grey Cup -- and proposed an expansion.

For this season, the CFL added offensive pass interference, illegal contact and roughing the kicker/passer, among other "subjective" penalties, to its list of reviewable plays. The intent, Johnson said, was to fix "obvious mistakes" that the common home viewer could see.

That mantra is quite literally painted on the wall of the CFL Command Centre. As he described the project, Johnson was sitting underneath a message that read: "The purpose of instant replay is to correct rulings where there is indisputable visual evidence that an incorrect call has been made on the field."

The point, Johnson said, is to "get better at the very, very small percentage of stuff we're not getting right." Just as important: Avoid attempting to correct the vast swath of debatable and/or 50-50 calls in a way that would bog down the flow of the game.

"We can use technology today to close that gap," Johnson said. "But whatever is in that gap, we really only want to deal with the big and obvious things."

CFL replay officials are not looking for a slight tug of the jersey or a glancing blow to the helmet. Instead, as demonstrated in the 2015 Grey Cup, they're looking to correct the kind of call that sends teams and fans into an exasperated frenzy.

With four minutes, 20 seconds remaining in that game, then-Edmonton Eskimos coach Chris Jones challenged an incompletion on a pass to receiver Dorel Walker. The replay showed Ottawa Redblacks defender Brandon Sermons slamming into Walker and shoving him out of the way of the pass.

It was a clear example of pass interference. Back in the Command Centre, the replay official agreed and assessed a 37-yard penalty. The Eskimos, who had been trailing 20-18, were now in position for what turned out to be the championship-clinching touchdown.

"Had the coach not had the ability to challenge that, we might still be talking about that call," Johnson said. "So guess what? He challenged it. We fixed it. It was the right thing, and no one talked about it for more than a week after the game. They just remember that it was a great game and the right team won."

But coaches look for every advantage imaginable, of course, and they pounced this season on the newly reviewable penalties. If they didn't have one already, CFL teams assigned an intern-level employee to the coaching booth during games, utilizing a custom video tablet -- complete with toggling and scrubbing functionality -- to scour plays for potentially reviewable calls.

Consider a Week 9 game this year in which Hamilton Tiger-Cats coach Kent Austin challenged an interception that his quarterback had thrown in the end zone to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Austin's complaint? A missed illegal contact penalty on the far side of the field, some 40 yards away from the interception and in a direction that quarterback Zach Collaros never looked.

The replay official reversed the interception. Instead of the Roughriders taking over after a touchback, the Tiger-Cats had first-and-goal because of contact that was technically illegal but had no impact on the play.

"In the end it worked out, but you kind of have a receiver coming off the field on every play saying he was grabbed," said Collaros, a former University of Cincinnati star. "If you're all of a sudden in a second-and-10 situation, you can be like, 'Hey, somebody probably got grabbed,' and challenge the call. So I'm not a fan of it. I think you need some human element in the game."

Indeed, reviews nearly doubled in the first 10 weeks, from 1.25 per game in 2015 to 2.43 thus far in 2016. Just as important, the CFL's average time per game swelled by just under three minutes.

"To be honest, I hate it," Collaros said. "[Replay expansion] sucks. It just slows the game down. It just slows it down too much, in my opinion. I don't want to get fined for saying that, and we benefited from it once tonight. But it seems like it always just takes too long."

I witnessed what can be a tense process from the inside during my visit to the Command Centre. As soon as a review was initiated, a red digital timer appeared at the bottom of a 60-inch screen on the front wall. Two 55-inch screens were below. One showed the live broadcast of the game, and the other projected the screen that Ireland used at his table.

On this occasion, the Montreal Alouettes challenged an Ottawa Redblacks completion. Technician Louie Polyzois started the timer and shouted its progress at regular intervals.

When an alternative view became available via the TSN broadcast, Polyzois captured and titled it.

"New angle!" he shouted. "Angle B!"

"I'm not seeing anything that tells me anything," Ireland said.

"45 seconds!" said Polyzois.

"Are there any other angles?" Ireland asked. Speaking directly to the TSN broadcasting truck, he repeated: "TSN, do you have any other angles?"

"Come on, guys," Hackwood said.

Unofficially, the CFL has a soft cap on replay reviews at 90 seconds.

"Anything else?" Ireland said one more time.

"One [minute], fifteen [seconds]!" Polyzois shouts.

"I see no mistake here," Ireland said.

"Me either," Cobb added.

"Tommy, the call is confirmed!" Ireland said through his headset to referee Tom Vallesi.

The review is over in one minute and 16 seconds.

Midseason tweak

Amid consistent complaints about the number and duration of challenges, from players and fans alike, the CFL took rare midseason action. A week after my visit, the league convened an emergency meeting of its board of governors. Effective immediately, it changed the challenge rule.

Now, a team loses a timeout if its first challenge fails. (Previously, a timeout was taken only if a second challenge failed.) Some might have viewed the change as an admission that the league had allowed replay to grow too large, but CFL officials considered it in the context of their corporate culture.

In a statement, Orridge said in part: "We are proud of the innovation we have brought to our game, including innovation in the use of replay, and the fact that these advances are being followed by other leagues. But innovation in any pursuit is often followed by adjustments and alterations."

The NFL is far too conservative to expand replay to this degree. Senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino has said he wants judgment calls to remain with on-field officials, and there isn't much support among players for a radical change.

Washington Redskins veteran defensive back DeAngelo Hall, for one, said he couldn't fathom such a transition to reviewing pass interference.

"No," Hall said during a training camp interview, his eyes growing wide at the mere mention. "No. No. No. It's too hard. It's one thing when you're reviewing something that is black and white: Is it a foul or not a foul? But judgment calls? The guy in the booth might see it differently than the guy on the field, and he might see it differently than someone in an office. Who's right? There's such a fine line and such a judgment call there, I think it would be really hard to do. Almost impossible."

Ten saves per game

Reasonable people can debate the limits of replay review and whether it should include judgment calls. But for the CFL -- and the NFL, for that matter -- the video official concept makes too much sense to ignore. Why should coaches, fans and players see easily fixed mistakes, once undetected but now visible on HD screens and scoreboards, go uncorrected?

Johnson's short answer: There is no reason to. His video official, in fact, is tasked in part with maintaining the public's trust.

On the night of my visit, Cobb toggled between the live broadcast feed and an all-24 angle -- CFL rules allow 12 players per side -- every time he saw a flag. One of his jobs: identifying the number of the player who committed the foul.

Sometimes, he simply told the referee: "It was No. 90, nine-zero, if you need it."

On other occasions, it was clear that the referee was asking him for help.

"I'm looking now," Cobb replied to one query. "Switching to the other angle. Yes. No. 56. Definitely. Confirmed."

It might sound simple, Johnson said, "but there's nothing worse than us announcing, 'Holding on No. 35,' and our broadcast partner going to the replay and No. 35 is not even touching a guy. There is an awkward silence, and people watching at home are like, 'These guys can't get it right!' In fact, it was No. 36 or No. 38. Just fixing a number can help."

Cobb's job is aided by the CFL schedule, which never has more than one game underway at a time. And for now, video officials are limited only to penalties that are not otherwise reviewable. They also can't initiate penalties that weren't called, even if they are obvious, although Johnson said that day might soon come.

Regardless, Hackwood estimated that the video official has contributed between eight and 10 fixes per game this season. Some might be simply flipping the hashmarks or correcting a player's number. On other occasions, the video official helps on-field officials spot the ball after penalties on kick returns.

"That's one of the most difficult things for our officials on the field to do," Hackwood said. "You're watching the penalty and then you have to immediately find where the ball is so you know how to mark it off. The video official has been very helpful with that. We were finding that we were consistently 4 or 5 yards off on those plays before we started this."

Said Johnson: "Nobody notices that. There's no credit given. But I can tell you the outcome is people think we're getting better. They believe the officiating product is getting better because of that. So there's some real benefit to fixing a bunch of those things in the background."

The big payoff, of course, is when the video official overrules an erroneous penalty called on the field. The system was designed for these instances to occur infrequently -- remember, the CFL is targeting only the "obvious" mistakes -- and through 10 weeks it has happened seven times.

Four of the seven have corrected the CFL's tricky offside rule for receivers who are in motion before the snap. On the field it appeared that the receivers were past the line of scrimmage when the ball moved. A quick look at the replay revealed they were not.

On one occasion in Week 5, the Edmonton Eskimos had a 40-yard touchdown play against Hamilton called back on an offside penalty. After a few minutes, it was announced that the video official ruled there was no offside and the touchdown would stand.

Marshall Ferguson, a former quarterback at Canada's McMaster University and now the Tiger-Cats' radio analyst, sat in the booth stunned.

"At that point," Ferguson said, "the conspiracy theorist in me is going, 'They just want a lot of scoring to happen so they're going to help teams score lots of points.' But when we saw the frame frozen, we could see there was no offsides."

Said Collaros: "There's times when it looks like the call is easy and they still don't change it, so it just feels weird to me. The conspiracy theories start to click in there."

The NFL experienced a similar reaction last season when a number of officiating sources theorized that league executives were "whispering" in the ears of referees during games to help avoid mistakes. The NFL has granted Blandino, senior director of officiating Al Riveron and/or the designated replay official formal authority this season to consult with the referee on application of rules, proper assessment of penalties, the proper down and the status of the game clock. The NFL made clear, however, that no one can advise referees about penalty calls as the CFL does.

The future

The CFL Command Centre hardly resembles a bustling hive of innovation.

It is about the size of a college dorm room, with seating for no more than six people. Two window air conditioning units help cool the overflow of video and communications equipment. Keeping the door open helps air circulation, and Hackwood closes it only when the cleaning crew arrives to vacuum the rest of the CFL office.

Occasionally, the occupants raise their voices to be heard over the sounds of a busy city three stories below on Wellington Street. Tim Hortons coffee cups dominate the decor. Standing against the back wall, Hackwood quietly ticked off the league's observations near the season's midpoint.

CFL officiating is running a 94 percent accuracy rate, about two points higher than 2015, based on internal grading of every play. On average, the system -- on-field officials combined with video and replay men -- is allowing two incorrect penalties to stand per game and missing six that should have been made.

"The victory for us is that we feel the officiating is better this year," Johnson said. "But perfection is not the right thing to chase. What we want to keep chasing is the obvious mistakes that are missed for some unknown reason, the ones that you would just expect to be made. Whether you put an 8-year-old in the room who doesn't know a whole lot about it, but kind of has a sense of what's right and wrong, or you put a really avid fan in the room, we want them to both think the same thing. We want to get to that good commonsense factor."

It's easy to imagine similar conversations in the boardrooms of other sports leagues. How best to incorporate the inevitable creep of technology while maintaining tradition, transparency and humanity? Among major North American sports, the CFL has jumped in most aggressively.

Orridge invoked the Japanese expression kaizen -- "continuous improvement" -- to illustrate the league's motivation. Both he and Johnson acknowledge that there is a limit to how accurate officiating can be, and neither man can foresee a day when a football game is fully administrated from the Command Centre rather than the field.

But the tension between the home audience and the view on the field, Orridge said, must continue to be addressed.

"Technology has provided us the opportunity to be more critical and to scrutinize to a level that has been unprecedented," he said. "We can see multiple camera angles at various speeds and literally dissect a play, and the on-field official has to make a split-second decision in real time. So therein lies the tension between what the home audience sees, and even the in-stadium audience, because we've been able to transport that type of technology in-stadium as well. But the tension is always going to have an element of human error. That's because of who we are. There has to be an allowance and acceptance of that.

"But we're always trying to get better."

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