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Tackling Tech: An Inside Look at NFL Instant Replay for 2017

Confused by changes to instant replay for 2017? Take a number.

There are plenty of new aspects to examine in what is likely the biggest change to the process in the three decades since instant replay hit the NFL in 1986-87. Tech plays a starring role in this production.

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A closer look at the National Football League's plan for instant replay this season reveals details that show that the league and its football operation unit are well-prepared for the move away from under-the-hood systems to centralized decisions made at NFL headquarters.

The newest-look instant replay process which called for centralization gained the approval of all 32 teams. It's clearly hoped that the change will help shorten game duration and get call outcomes correct in what is a less than perfect scenario.

Clarity, not Confusion

To dispel amassed and sweeping confusion, know the following:

Refs aren't going away, nor are under-the-hood systems or the zebras' role in resolving replays. And instant replay will not be handled completely by experts in NFL HQ in New York City. And Microsoft Surface tablets will now play a key role in the instant replay process.

The New Approach

When a challenge flag is thrown, instead of running to the under-the-hood systems to watch video clips of the play in question, the official will be handed a Surface tablet by a staffer that shadows the ref to view the footage.

Because there's not enough wireless stadium bandwidth to move around the needed video, the tablet will be hard-wired to the video source offering plenty of capacity. The Referee will be able to provide details to NY regarding the play and specifically what the coach is challenging. 

Once the flag is flown one of the trio at NFL HQ views the video feed of the play.

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In fact, the league collected feedback and coaches, front office staff alike and they were overwhelmingly in favor to still have the referee seeing the video. The referee will be able to provide details to New York regarding the play and specifically what the coach is challenging. 

New York and the League's Officiating Department will make the final determination/decision of all replay stoppages. The referee will assist in this process as his officiating perspective is needed to make sure all details of the stoppage are executed thoroughly. 

The league also wants the referee to give a thorough explanation on the replay stoppage outcome to the coaching staff, other game officials, TV and fans. Without video and seeing the play information, that becomes much harder to accomplish.

At the latest league meetings, the owners/competition committee decided to implement the change, in part in an effort to speed up the game, explained NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during press conferences. He didn't provide much in the way of detail on the tablet-based approach.

Media reports described it as the end of the current instant replay systems used by the league for decades.

Not so fast.

How We Got Here

Enabling refs to move from the fixed, under-the-hood replay systems to the Surface tablets was years in the making. The league's football operations unit had hoped to speed reviews by using wireless technology and the tablets.

This season, referees will look to handle replays with a tablet presented them by a staffer that shadows him to cut down on travel time to the hood. However, if for any reason there are problems - glitches, confusion or uncertainty - the under the hood systems WILL still be in their position and all set to go as a fallback measure. This is the plan for 2017. What happens beyond this season depends on what happens this season.

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The NFL's tech brain trust put the tablet approach to handling replays through the paces in the past few years in anticipation and as a means to shorten to time taken on instant replays. It was determined this approach would in fact shorten the go-run-under-the-hood-and-watch-the-replay process that has become as much a part of football as timeouts.

In testing the newer approach, the NFL found that there was not however enough wireless bandwidth to carry the replay video clips to the umpire with the tablet. That's not a huge surprise to those familiar with networking technology, but has forced a change to the newer approach.

For this season and the foreseeable future, the tablets will be hardwired to the video source. The clips will travel over the cable to the ref's tablet without bandwidth concerns. It's not clear if the league is working to move to a wireless approach in the years ahead.

The challenge here is that the wireless connectivity varies widely among NFL venues. During the league's test of video over wireless for tablet replay reviews the compression algorithm used, H.264 wasn't enough for the testers.

The Time Target

The original goal here was to resolve replays faster. That has received far greater emphasis from the league and commissioner in the push to speed the game after a ratings drop 2016 season in which fans complained about too many breaks in the action, such as commercial breaks and down time. Many believe processing replays and reviews has been taking much too long.

Another pressing reality is that coaches and others have sought to use the replay system to review many types of plays, with Patriots Coach Bill Belichick going on record as saying every play should be reviewable.

Expanded use of review replays was initially fended off, but the pressure to use the system more broadly has continued on.

The stated goal, instituted in May, 2016, is to keep reviews to a 60-second max, time from when referee begins his review of the replay at the field-level monitor. Prior to that, the limit was 90 seconds.

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Here's the verbiage from the 2016 rule amendment: "The Replay Official and designated members of the Officiating Department at the League office may consult with the on-field officials to provide information on the correct application of playing rules, including appropriate assessment of penalty yardage, proper down, and status of the game clock."

The NFL tested the use of tablets to assist replay officials as far back as in 2015. That year, they saw duty on the 2015 Pro Bowl and again during at least 10 games during preseason. Both opportunities - and the annual combine - are often used as proving grounds or a testbeds for technology use to optimize current processes. It's unclear if the instant replay on tablets was tested last season.

Dean Blandino

The handling of instant replays faces challenges on the personnel front as the head of officiating resigned from his position earlier this month in a surprising move. Blandino and two assistant were supposed to make calls on replays and reviews from the NFL facility in New York this season.

That would create the likely possibility of the trio making calls in multiple concurrent games on Sundays. There has been much talk of what has been referred to as "centralized instant replay" in which Blandino and crew would play the starring role.

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The NFL has yet to name a replacement for Blandino  who has been the face of instant replay in what is seen by many as a thankless - you-can't please all of the people all of the time job. 

Many fans have already voiced hope the league hires a replacement that has a solid body of game-calling experience, believing that will help optimize the instant replay process.

The Bottom Line

Implementing the biggest change to the instant replay process since was implemented in the late 1980s is a daunting challenge. That's because there are many moving pieces that need to work together to ensure smooth operation.

Still TBD is who will run the system at NFL HQ  how officials will react to viewing replays on Surface tablets and if/how they will mesh with the crew in New York when it comes to deciding outcomes of reviewed plays.

The goals are clear. Meeting them ASAP is job one for the NFL this season.

Stay tuned.

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology redefine the way sports teams interact with their partners. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.

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