Chris O'Meara, File, Associated Press
NEW YORK — The Falcons had just been called for a costly pass-interference penalty with Atlanta clinging to a seven-point lead late in Sunday's game against Detroit. Coach Mike Smith's staffers in the booth immediately started yelling in his headset that the ball had been tipped, making the contact legal.
Only he couldn't throw that red flag to request a review.
"With less than two minutes, we had to rely on the officials, but they did a great job," Smith said after the ruling was overturned and the Falcons went on to clinch a 23-16 victory. "They didn't let the Lions snap the ball so the replay official could get a good look, and they made the right call."
We're all hearing more about the replay official this season, after the NFL instituted automatic reviews of every score to try to avoid game-changing mistakes.
All plays after the two-minute warning and in overtime had already been automatically reviewed by an official upstairs. The rest of the time, coaches still must initiate challenges.
The rule change seeks to ensure "we don't have a situation late in the game where they've either burned through their timeouts or used their two challenges, and now we have a critical scoring play outside the two minutes and we have an error and we can't fix it," said Dean Blandino, a consultant to the NFL officiating department who previous served as the league's director of instant replay.
For fans familiar with the sight of a coach tossing a red flag to issue a challenge, the automatic review process may seem a bit mysterious.
In the replay booth, officials simply determine whether the on-field referee should go under the hood to review the play — unlike college, where the official upstairs also makes the decision on whether to overturn the call.
Still, looking over plays is a high tech, multi-person job.
Most of the league's replay officials are retired NFL field officials, and all have officiated football at some level. "We want someone with field experience who's been in the game to be in the replay booth," said vice president of officiating Carl Johnson.
The replay official and his team work in a room in the press box with the same equipment setup in every stadium. Like an airliner cockpit, the door is locked.
The replay official sits in the middle, using a touch screen to pick which clips to watch.
To the right is the video operator, who selects the replays to be examined. The technician is to the left, ready to fix any equipment malfunctions.
There's also the "communicator," who NFL director of officiating David Coleman calls "the eyes and ears of the replay booth." The job includes radioing the field communicator if the referee's pager isn't working and letting the replay official know the ball is about to be snapped during a two-minute drill.
When a touchdown is scored, the referee doesn't set the ball for the extra point until he's buzzed by the booth that the score is confirmed.
"We need indisputable visual evidence to overturn a ruling. Then to confirm it, you need that same level of evidence," Blandino said. "If they don't have that, then they've got to stop the game and bring the referee over."
On an obvious score, the official doesn't even have to wait for a replay — he can just rewind the live feed like a fan using a DVR to watch the play again. The TV feed has a six-second delay, so the official can see the play on the field then immediately catch it again on the screen.
There's no time limit for the review. If the score can't be confirmed right away, the league instructs officials to wait for at least one replay "in a reasonable amount of time," Blandino said.
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