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Why the rich get richer under the NFL’s current instant replay setup

Posted: 5:38 PM, Nov 22, 2019
Updated: 2019-11-22 23:54:25-05
Jarvis Landry Refs

Why do some NFL teams manage to get a lot of their instant replay challenges upheld, while others – ahem, Browns – don’t seem to have much luck? We took a look at the numbers and discovered an interesting pattern – one that many fans aren’t aware of. 

The instant replay process

Reestablished in 1999, instant replay has the power to affect a team’s fortunes week in and week out.


Here’s how it works: 


When a coach throws his challenge flag, or when the replay official initiates the review, the plays are looked over and consulted by replay technicians at Art McNally GameDay Central in New York. 


While the officials meet on the field to discuss the play, either the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, Alberto Riveron, or another senior designated member of the department, examines the play and all of the camera angles available to them. 


Once the best angles are selected by the team in New York, the video is fed back to a tablet on the field and shown to the referee. The final decision of the review comes directly from the senior member of the officiating department in New York and is then announced on the field by the referee.

While the referee on the field takes the heat for making the call, the final decision is ultimately out of their hands.

In 2017, the NFL changed the language it used to describe the standard used to overturn calls in an instant replay review.

The league went from requiring "indisputable visual evidence" to requiring "clear and obvious evidence." Despite a change in wording, the league maintains the standard is the same.


When a play is reviewed and the NFL senior officiating members are selecting the camera angles, they are given access to the video feeds from whatever network the game is being broadcast on. 


“We are dependent on TV as to what we show the referee when he comes over,” Riveron said.


We reached out to the broadcast networks that air NFL games to see how many cameras each network uses, and we uncovered a major disparity. Primetime games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights get the most cameras.

 ·      Sunday Night Football regularly uses 30 to 35 cameras and has used as many as 43 for a single game, according to NBC. 

·      Thursday Night Football uses around 35 to 45 cameras during its broadcast of primetime games, according to FOX.

·      Monday Night Football employs as many as 49 cameras for its broadcasts, according to ESPN.


Primetime games not only have more cameras, but more technology at the broadcaster’s disposal, including sky cameras, marker cameras and pylon cameras. 


If you compare those numbers to the rest of the games broadcast during a week—those played at 1 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon—the disparity emerges.


A typical Sunday afternoon game uses around 12 cameras, according to FOX. That’s three to four times fewer cameras than a game played on primetime television.

Winners and losers

Having significantly fewer angles from which to review a play affects the game. The more camera angles there are, the better chance for clear views of a play.


When a coach challenges a play, or when an official must review a play, they have a better chance at overturning or definitively revealing the true outcome if they have the appropriate angle. The teams that play in the most primetime games, therefore, have the best shot at successfully overturning a play because they have the most cameras.


Since 1999, when instant replay returned, the Dallas Cowboys (93 games) and the Philadelphia Eagles (95 games) have played the most games in primetime. The Browns, by comparison, have played in just 28 primetime games in that span, third-fewest in the NFL.


Guess which two teams have the highest success rates for instant replay review challenges since 1999? If you guessed the Eagles and the Cowboys, you’re correct. 


The Cowboys and Eagles have a challenge success rate of 47.5 percent and 45.6 percent respectively. The Browns have a mere 34 percent success rate on instant replay review challenges.

About the Browns…

The memory of Browns receiver Jarvis Landry’s almost-touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 6 is still fresh in the minds of many fans.


During the fourth quarter, quarterback Baker Mayfield completed a pass to Landry on fourth-and-goal. It appeared that Landry just barely crossed the threshold of the goal line before fumbling the ball, which would have given the Browns a much-needed lead. 

The original ruling on the field was that Landry was short of the goal line, a ruling that head coach Freddie Kitchens challenged. Senior officials in New York checked the camera angles to see if they could overturn the call, but the game took place at 1 p.m. on a Sunday, which limited the number of camera angles at their disposal, compared to a primetime game. 


No camera angle provided by the broadcast network showed the goal line from both sides, so the only view was of Landry’s backside. A camera angle showing the goal line from the front of Landry’s body was absent, forcing officials to uphold the ruling on the field and stripping away a potential six points in a game Cleveland lost 32-28.


That was the game Mayfield ripped officials for making bad calls. 

“I’ll probably get fined for saying this but it was pretty bad today. I don’t know, it ticks me off,” Mayfield said in a press conference.

Former NFL official John Parry spent 19 years calling NFL games before retiring and moving into the Monday Night Football booth to provide expert analysis. He said that additional camera angles may have changed the outcome of that game.


“You take a primetime game that has 30 camera angles, you’re probably going to get that shot versus a 1 o’clock game,” he said. “Huge difference.”

Against the Broncos in Week 9, Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens challenged and lost on what would have been a first down by Mayfield. Kitchens said more cameras at that game may have changed the call. 

“We also felt like he made it, too. We were trying to buy some time to see if we could get anymore looks at it,” Kitchens said. “You have different amounts of cameras at some of these games, you’ve got more at others, and I thought he made it.”

Kitchens obviously would like more cameras at all of his games, considering the majority of them are those pesky Sunday day games with the fewest number of cameras. 


That’s something officials want, too. The job of an NFL official is to maintain fairness throughout each contest.


“I want it right for them,” former NFL official Parry said. “I wanted it right when I was on the field. Anything you can put in your toolbox, whether it’s at all 32 stadiums there’s 16 cameras that are fixed and everybody’s got them, there’s got to be a way to inter-mix that."

“The game is advantage/disadvantage. The seven guys on the field, their only job is to determine and make sure nobody got an advantage,” Parry said.

Moving forward

We contacted the NFL about the findings and they chose not to comment, but the commissioner is keenly aware of criticism of the league’s officiating.

“Anytime officiating is part of the discussion postgame it’s not a good outcome for us,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this year. “We know that, our clubs know that, our officials know that. But we also know our officials are human. We have worked very hard to bring technology in to make sure we do whatever’s possible to address those issues.”

Published reports from earlier in the season indicate a change in the instant replay process is in the works. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported that the NFL expects to overhaul the instant replay system in 2020, a change that includes lessening the league’s dependence on the TV broadcast trucks and exploring new technology such as microchips in game balls. 


Until then, the challenging of crucial plays every week will, in no small part, remain subject to the designs of the NFL’s schedule-makers.

Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice

Jon Doss is a sports anchor at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter @JonDoss