Why Replay Assisted Calls Are No Magic Bullet

The CFL‘s experiment with Replay Assisted Calls has been a mixed bag of results after eight weeks. So far, about half of the challenges have been upheld, meaning the other half were incorrect calls that were overturned. The number of challenges per game has ranged from zero to the maximum four and the percentage of challenges taken so far (out of the max possible) is around the 15-20% mark. Not bad at all for a system that does not penalize coaches for their first challenge. However, the CFL still faces criticism over the new system and some of the same criticisms they have faced for years.

CFL Director of Officiating George Black clarified some replay misconceptions and give it a good review after six weeks in an interview in mid-July. It was covered by the media across the country. After the next weekend’s games however an impromptu addressing of issues that occurred in July 15th Montreal vs. Winnipeg game had to take place.

Learning Curve

The Replay Assisted Call system is a new system, and not exactly simple. It will require some time for coaches, officials, broadcasters and fans alike to understand its nuances and understand reviewable and non-reviewable calls. Any criticism in this regard can be dismissed, as it will take a full season for the proper breaking in period to be complete.

The System

The system does warrant some criticism in my opinion, which I vocalized earlier. Primarily the number of challenges available is excessive. As predicted the first challenge which is free (does not cost a timeout) is easily abused by coaches. While the first challenge per team has not been used in every game, there certainly have been instances where coaches have made the challenge despite knowing from their booth personnel that there would be little chance in a reversal of the call. Broadcasters have vocalized this possibility as well; with the attitude why not challenge the call if there is no deterrent. This first challenge will be used more strategically by coaches, effectively becoming an extra timeout to rest defences instead of actually seriously challenging a play.

Coaches have the ability to throw the challenge flag prior to the next snap and subsequently pick up the flag prior to the official executing the review. This has been done frequently in games this year to this point, with knowledge from coaches in the booths with access to replays or players involved reversing the coach’s decision. While this prevents an unnecessary challenge, it still extends the game. Each of these incidents can add 30-60 seconds minimum to the game as the challenge flag is thrown, the officials huddle, the challenge is rescinded and the official announces the ruling. With unlimited ability to make and rescind challenges, some games can be extended great lengths by these acts through no fault of the coaches.

Fewer challenges also fit with what a challenge system was developed for — to address those special incidents where an official cannot make the right call on the field but a replay can assist making the right call. These incidents are a rare occurrence, happening once a game or less. More challenges and a wide range of reviewable plays leaves the Replay Assisted Call system to officiate the game instead of the officiating team. What the fans want are those obvious mistakes where a player is called down before an obvious fumble or an onside player recovers a kick.

The types of plays that are reviewable are primarily non-judgement calls, but judgement can creep into many types of calls, from possession on a catch to ball spotting. Strangely, possession on a loose ball can be challenged relating to in or out of bounds recovery, but recovery of a fumble in the field of play is not challengeable. Certainly deciding on possession under a pile is difficult to determine by replay, but why not allow the challenge and leave it in the coach’s decision. If no evidence to overturn the call is found, the on field call will stay and certainly, coaches will realize that 99 out of 100 times that will be the case. In the case of first down yardage or touchdown, camera angles are rarely in a proper position along the plane of the field so the officials are usually in the best position to make those calls.

Finally, the 3-minute warning period (and overtime) where the Replay Official in the League Supervisor’s booth must initiate all reviews instead of the coaches must be clarified and eliminated if necessary. The purpose of introducing this period is to prevent erroneous calls from standing when a replay could have overturned the call but a coach was out of challenges when plays during this period can decide a game. While built on getting important calls correct, the procedures surrounding these reviews appears to be faulty. The CFL operates with a 20-second clock, and hurry-up offences can be in play near the end of the game, leaving little time for a call to be reviewed.

Judgement Calls

Despite the ability to correct some errors made by officials on the field, the CFL still remains open to the same criticism in the area of officiating. Most complaints regarding officiating rise from the call or non-call of penalties. Consistency in this area is maddening to players, coaches and fans. Knowing that the same methods by players on both teams will result in holding or pass interference penalties would be a huge step forward. As it is, these are judgement calls and there will always be differences from game to game with different officiating crews. What the CFL needs to do is to continue to improve the training of the officials to reduce the inconsistency of calls within games and between games. Calls that are more consistent will do more for the CFL‘s officiating being transparent to the game than Replay Assisted Calls every will.


The CFL‘s Replay Assisted Calls system is here for the 2006 season. During the off-season it will be reviewed. As a fan I hope they will listen to some of the concerns raised here. Do not take Replay Assisted Calls to be a magic bullet that will eliminate officiating criticism. For 2007, I recommend a reduction of the number of challenges to one per team per game, with unsuccessful challenges costing a timeout. A re-focus on officials’ training and consistency on penalty calls must also take place in 2007, if not the second half of 2006. These steps forward will bring CFL officiating on par with any league.

One Response to “Why Replay Assisted Calls Are No Magic Bullet”

  1. Cindy Says:

    I don’t understand how replay can work in football. The field is so big and there are only so may cameras. Something in the way or a wrong angle seems to be what generally happens and they can’t find conclusive evidence to change a call. It isn’t like hockey where they are only reviewing goals and they have 4 different camera angles on the net.

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