The discussion is over. There is nothing more to debate. Despite its denials, the NFL has unquestionably distorted its replay-review system in a way that is impacting the playoff race and could potentially threaten the direction of an actual postseason game.
The latest and debate-ending evidence is the decision to reverse a touchdown catch by Buffalo Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin just before halftime in Sunday's matchup with the New England Patriots. The play followed in an excruciating line of touchdown reversals this season, including two by New York Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and another by Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller that have exposed what can only be described as a shift in an interpretation of the NFL rulebook under new senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron.
As you might have seen, referee Craig Wrolstad's crew ruled that Benjamin had both feet down in the end zone when he controlled Tyrod Taylor's scoring pass. All scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and the replay showed Benjamin's right foot clearly down while his left toes dragged the ground in bounds.
The league rulebook is clear about what should happen next. The call on the field must stand unless it is "clear and obvious" that a mistake was made. Over the years, we've come to understand what that standard meant. It was to aid officials if, say, a foot clearly landed out of bounds or a ball obviously bounced off the ground.
Former NFL coach Mike Holmgren used to call the standard "50 guys in a bar." In other words, if 50 random people watching the play thought it was the wrong call, it should be changed. Otherwise, if there was any debate, it should remain as called.
But Riveron and new vice president of replay Russell Yurk, both of whom operate from the league's command center in New York City, have taken a different approach -- one that has incurred the wrath of fans and teams along with unusually direct criticism from predecessors and current Fox Sports analysts Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino.
Watching Benjamin's play frame-by-frame in slow motion on Sunday, it seemed possible that the ball might have still been slightly loose when Benjamin's left toes dragged. In turn, his left foot could have been off the ground when he finally secured possession. It was really close, however, which by definition is not "clear and obvious."
The NFL felt differently. Wrolstad told a pool reporter that "it was clear and obvious that [Benjamin] did not have control of the ball until he brought it all the way down into his chest." In a video posted to Twitter, Riveron explained how he concluded that control did not occur until after Benjamin’s left foot lifted off the ground.
Still, this was an example of tightly scrutinizing and re-officiating a decision, the likes of which aren’t contemplated in the NFL’s current standard of replay. Pereira and Blandino swiftly condemned the decision, continuing the uncomfortable and increasingly isolated position Riveron has created for himself.
regarding the Buffalo no touchdown, nothing more irritating to an official than to make a great call and then someone in a suit in an office in New York incorrectly reverses it. It is more and more obvious that there isn't a standard for staying with the call on the field.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) December 24, 2017
I spoke to Riveron earlier this season about what seemed to be an emerging reinterpretation of the standard. He insisted that the definition of what made a play worthy of reversal had not changed. But he acknowledged that people can have different interpretations of the same standard.
"If we go by the definition, the answer is no," Riveron said at the time. "The standard has not changed. If you go by interpretation? Sure, 365 million people can have a different interpretation of the words. But then you have to take into account how long the individuals making the decision have been in this room. I have been in the replay room for three years, and the philosophy and application of the rule has not changed. That I can tell you."
Riveron's appointment came in the first year that owners granted full replay authority to the league office. Riveron and Yurk have too often chosen to microanalyze the replay instead of taking the 30,000-foot view of supporting the call on the field unless the mistake is obvious. I can’t imagine many fans want to see officials squinting at a replay to determine whether a player’s foot is touching the ground or if it was hovering a half-inch above it.
In this case, the Bills lost points in a game in which they are fighting for their playoff chances. It's not often that we see a prolonged and obvious move away from NFL rules during the season, and I strongly suspect this one will be addressed in the offseason. Either the NFL must enforce its actual standard, or change it.