The NFL’s replacement refs are under intense fire today thanks to this, and will be for as long as the NFL and the referees union don’t get a deal done. When a game turns on the last play because of a call that’s (almost) universally labeled inaccurate, that’s what happens. It looks more and more every game like the replacements are in over their heads, and the calls to get the regular officials working again are entirely warranted.
It’s worth remembering, though, that not everyone who has a hand in determining the NFL’s refereeing process is a replacement: the officials in the replay booth are the same as ever. Normally, that might not matter when it comes to a decision like the one made on the game-deciding play last night. While the booth officials are there to help the referees do their job, making the ultimate call is still the referee’s job. On scoring plays, the process goes like this:
[Plays will be] automatically reviewed by the replay assistant, and if that assistant thinks it’s a close enough call that it warrants a closer look, he’ll buzz down to the on-field referee to take that closer look.
“Well,” you say, “the play last night was reviewed and the call was upheld, so what else could the booth officials have done?” A valid question, but according to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, there’s been a quiet little shift in responsibility in the replacement-ref-era NFL:
Under normal circumstances, the decision [on the ruling] would be made exclusively by the referee. Now, with the non-replacement league supervisor in the replay booth along with the non-replacement replay official, the procedure has been, we’re told, blurred a bit, allowing the replacement referee to get input from the folks who otherwise would be saying, essentially, “Figure it out, Hochuli.”
The “we’re told” is vague, yes, but it’s also conceivable that the league would quietly give its regular officials some more authority while not publicly throwing the replacements under the bus. Has that happened? Impossible for us to say. It might not have. The replay of last night’s final play might have gone according to normal, non-replacement procedure (which, of course, would help explain why the touchdown call stood despite Tate not appearing to have nearly enough control of the ball to be awarded a touchdown from any angle). But it’s worth remembering that while the on-field officials still do the lion’s share of the game-calling, there are working officials who aren’t replacements.
(Oh, and one other thing: Mike Tirico, as pointed out by Florio in the above piece, said the call of who caught the ball had to be made on the field… except that didn’t make sense, because practically as he said it, the referee announced that the play was under review. Additionally, as Florio points out, the NFL rulebook specifically says that whether a pass was complete, incomplete, or intercepted is subject to review. In short: nothing makes sense and everything is confusing as hell.)
Getty photo, by Ronald Martinez