This was originally published in The Athletic.
When he was asked about the future of instant replay in the NFL, Mike Brown was right.
“I’m the lone holdout, but it looks like it’s coming back. It turns our game into arguing over calls, and I thought we were done with that in eighth grade…(But) they’ll bring it back and there will be the same problems as there were before.”
That quote from the Cincinnati Bengals owner isn’t from last week when he rather famously cast the lone dissenting vote against the expansion of the league’s replay system to include possible review of pass interference calls and non-calls. It’s from late winter of 1999 when the NFL was working on reviving and tweaking a replay system that had been dormant for seven years. Brown watched helplessly as pretty much every other owner decided to institute replay in time for the 1999 season, this time, however, with the clumsy challenge system that we’ve spent two decades watching coaches screw up almost weekly. But Brown was willing to share with the Cincinnati Enquirer, among others, some thoughts about the new replay system that would ultimately prove to be prescient.
“It will take away from the flow of the game and it’s a distraction.”
However you feel about the use of replay, in any sport, to ultimately achieve the goal of getting calls right, there’s little doubting that what Brown foresaw in 1999 ended up becoming a major part of pro football’s 21st Century reality. It feels like we spend most of the season ceaselessly scrutinizing officiating, often ignoring anything else that contributes to a game’s result. We instead focus on and argue over calls, non-calls, judgment errors and whatever other officiating injustices have contributed to an outcome. That includes the usage, misapplication, and despite every conceivable technological advancement the league has enjoyed, imperfections of a system that’s undeniably affected the flow and pace of NFL games, serving as much of a distraction as an aid in ensuring that the right calls were made.
Replay adds a choppiness. Replay disrupts a game’s flow. Replay, as Mike Brown warned use two decades ago, is a distraction.
Mike Brown is again the lone holdout 20 years later. The league has again decided to make replay an offseason priority, this time opening up an already flawed system to include one of the game’s biggest judgment calls. It will help at times, create more confusion or controversy at others, and will likely lead us to a point where nearly everything under a game official’s jurisdiction will be subject to a call to New York while the rest of us wait.
And once again, the guy who runs the Bengals is happy to share his reasoning for being opposed to expanded replay…
“The reason that we are against it is that it interrupts the game. It changes the character of the game, in my mind,” he said. “I think it’s in some ways sort of odd to see people all sitting there waiting for somebody in New York to tell them it is or it isn’t. I’d rather just play the game.”
He’s not wrong. Whether you’re a replay proponent or not, it’s impossible to deny that the NFL’s instant replay system has added to the already numerous interruptions that overpopulate football games, sometimes not even ensuring that the right calls are made. And the character of the game, which for decades always relied on basic human judgment, has been drastically changed during the replay era. There is something bizarre about watching a game and having the action come to a complete stop while some faceless person in a remote location looks at something that happened at a stadium he’s not in, in a game he may or may not be paying close attention to.
I’d rather just play the game.
To read the entire piece, go to The Athletic.