Friday, June 02, 2006

New instant replay rules

Instant replay has done so much to improve football in the NFL. The burden of calling the replay is on the coach of the team whose team stands to gain an advantage through a reversed call, and there are well-defined rules about what can be challenged, when a challenge can be made, and what happens in the case of a failed challenge.

But in the college game, it's been a dismal failure. Sure, some bad calls have been reversed, and that has been a blessing. The NCAA let the Big Ten experiment with its own form of replay in 2004, and opened it up to the rest of D-IA the following year. By allowing each conference to set the rules that would govern its team's games, the NCAA effectively made its member conferences into guinea pigs. They hedged their bets and hoped that one of the conferences would come up with a replay system that could be adopted as the national standard. At the very least, the best parts of the forms of replay that were out there could be cobbled together Frankenstein-style, leading to a system that would satisfy coaches, players, officials, and fans.

I bring this up because Mike Lucas has an article about changes to the replay system approved Tuesday by the NCAA. He details one of the lowest moments in replay history -- the 2005 Alamo Bowl featuring Michigan and Nebraska. The officials for that game were provided by the Sun Belt Conference, and it was clear from the get-go that the referees were not prepared to call the game. Time and time again, the speed and intensity of two major-conference powers (albeit on down years) was too much for them, as they missed calls. The fact they were overseeing a game that included an instant replay system when their own conference hadn't adopted one was just an added insult to the Huskers and the Wolverines; when controversy reared its head, the blissfully ignorant officiating crew allowed the game to continue until Lloyd Carr frantically burned a timeout.

Now the NCAA has implemented a "coach's challenge" rule, a watered-down version of the Mountain West Conference's rules. (And you thought the only good thing to come out of the MWC was Alex Smith.) The new recommendation is to allow coaches a single challenge each game. If the challenge fails, the team loses a timeout; if it succeeds, well, it succeeds. End of story.

This seems destined to failure. Coaches will use their challenges, of this there can be no doubt. However, there's no incentive to burn that challenge in the first quarter (or, even, the first half!) Should a coach use the challenge on a third-down catch that might not have been out of bounds at the opponents' 25-yard line, resulting in a first down, or should he take the field goal and save the challenge for other matters? Should he EVER use a challenge on, say, a catch where it looks like an opposing player might have gone out of the back of the end zone on a play that was called a touchdown, or should it be squirreled away for his own team's final drive? While one challenge is better than none at all, it certainly isn't enough to serve as the basis for an entire replay system.

That said, is this even a challenge-driven replay system? The articles I've read don't say one way or another. Will we still have the Big Ten-style referee-driven system, where an official can stop play at any time for a video review? In this case, will the officials expect a coach to use his challenge before they stop the game on his team's behalf "for free?" Will the officials continue to start calling the game as tentatively as they have been, calling loose balls fumbles until the video replay shows them otherwise? Furthermore, will the video system be the same division-wide, or will it still be dependent on the cameras that the TV network brings? Will coaches be at a disadvantage when their game isn't televised, forcing them to save their challenge flag for times when they know the limited number of cameras couldn't possibly have missed the call they're disputing?

Giving authority to both the coaches and the officials in a replay system seems like a terrible idea. If that's really what the NCAA is doing, we're going to see a few outraged coaches this season.