This week we have a request from reader TomC to give a rundown of instant-replay review protocol, so I prepared this jumbo-sized Officiating update to completely explain video review. Protocol and management are actually one of the thorniest aspects of review process, because so little is actually covered in the rule book. I think it's important to again break down the three parts of effective officiating:
1) Rules. This much is obvious: the officials have to understand the rules, be able to adequately explain the rules, and dole out any enforcements to the coaches and captains.
2) Game Management. The ability to keep the ball moving back to the spot, to effectively communicate down and distance to the coaches and captains, and to coordinate between officials to resolve any disputes quickly and fairly.
3) Philosophy. This is a nebulous-but-ubiquitous term for officials. The rules are sometimes open to interpretation, and in many cases explicitly require a subjective judgment by the official.
Replay protocol is a mix of parts two and three, neither of which are actually publicly available, since they are given directly to NFL officials via rules and play review during the week and training during the off-season. With that in mind, there are a few bright-line rules:
A challenge will be initiated by the replay official (in the press box) if there is a questionable ruling during the last two minutes of either half, in overtime, and on any scoring plays, interceptions, fumbles, backwards passes that result in a turnover, or muffed scrimmage kicks when recovered by the kicking team. Commentators and announcers constantly simplify this process as "all turnovers and scoring plays are automatically reviewed." That is not true. The actual process is that the replay official will review the play to determine whether an instant replay review (performed by the referee) is warranted. All the 2011 and 2012 rules changes effectuated was a shifting of discretion to initiate the review from the head coaches to the replay official.
If a play is not one where challenges are initiated by the replay official, each head coach has at least two opportunities to challenge the ruling on the field, and is awarded a third if his first two challenges are successful. Between 1998 and 2005, coaches signaled challenges via a pager held by the referee. However, due to coaches abusing the system by paging the referee to merely discuss plays with him and not to challenge, the league transitioned to a system of red challenge flags to signify the coach initiating a replay review. The 2012 rule book also contains new language that mandates a 15-yard penalty for a coach attempting to initiate a challenge when, by rule, he is prohibited from doing so. The replay official still uses the pager system to initiate reviews when applicable.
After the challenge is initiated, the referee will announce via intercom that the result of the play is being challenged, who is challenging it, and what aspect of the play is being challenged. The referee then performs the signal to stop the clock three times, followed by a replay review signal that is similar to the signal for unsportsmanlike conduct. From there, the referee retires to a hooded monitor for 60 seconds (but, in practice, as long as the referee feels like taking) on the field level to look at high definition footage of the play from multiple angles. While the call is ultimately made by the referee, there is no bar on the referee from involving the officials involved in making the call in a consultation, so long as those officials are not under the hood reviewing the video themselves.
The referee is looking for indisputable visual evidence that any challenged aspect of the play was incorrectly called, and a coach is charged with a timeout if the challenge is not upheld in a manner that materially affects the competitive balance of the game (the most famous example of that principle is a re-spot favorable to the offense that does not result in a first down). It is important to remember that each part of the play is handled separately under this standard. While there may be indisputable evidence that a would-be fumble was recovered by the opposing team, the point is moot if there is not indisputable visual evidence that the catch prior to the fumble was made out of bounds. The converse is also true: if the ruling on an incomplete pass is reversed to a fumble, there must be clear possession established by the opposing team to award a change in possession.
Policies such as this have actually had a direct effect on game management, as officials have been instructed (philosophy!) to allow a marginal play to run far longer than previously allowed, so as to preserve tape of a possible play extension. This does help greatly on marginal reviews, but unfortunately presents a significant downside in confusion between officials and players. It also occasionally becomes a safety hazard, when players on either team believe a play is over and let their guard down while other players recognize the ball is not yet dead.
The rule book does provide an exhaustive list of rulings eligible for instant replay review, although as we discussed a few weeks ago, the discretion available to a referee in reviewing collateral issues is a matter of interpretation the NFL has not shared with anyone other than its officials. The main categories that are reviewable are:
1) Plays involving the sideline, goal line and end line
2) Passing plays, most often the forwardness of a pass, eligibility of receivers and whether a catch is a legal reception
3) Whether a player was down by contact as it relates to a catch, run or fumble.
Almost no penalties are reviewable, and game administration (clocks, penalty enforcements and proper down) is never reviewable.
Hopefully that provided a quick rundown of the replay review process. If you have any questions, go ahead and ask away in comments, although the answer may very well be "Only the league knows." The NFL employs ninja to guard their secrets well.