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Does The NFL Need VAR?

Does the NFL need VAR (or other assistive technology)?

Everyone has experienced it at one time or another. A decision, that clearly the refs got wrong, that adversely affects your team. It is frustrating, angering, it’s just plain unfair! I would expect that the vast majority of us follow, to some extent a team in the Premier League. If not then we all have friends who will have spoken with you about it this year. The introduction of VAR has dramatically changed how soccer (not calling it football is weird but for the article soccer it shall be) games flow.

VAR was brought in as it was supposed to makes things fairer. It would only intervene in those moments that the in game referee was wrong, or missed something big. What we really got was the epitome of a farce. There are two sides of this fence, on the one side those who think that making the game fair to the exact rule of the law is how things should be. On the other are those who miss the flowing nature of the game where, yes mistakes were made, but the soul of the game saw to it that over a season these were evened out.

We have seen goals ruled out for someone having a shoe lace offside or because there was a slight foul 20 passes back at the start of the move. The upshot of this is that you cant just celebrate a goal anymore. The instant gratification has been replaced with a 1-2 minute wait. Part of the fun of the game is that sometimes things went your way when they shouldn’t.

But It’s An NFL Article

…and that is what it is, I promise. I decided to write a piece about this following Patrick Mahomes’ stating earlier in the week that he expects technology to assist referees in the future. Talking on the WHOOP podcast, he indicated that he expects the microchip in the ball will be used to check when a ball crosses the goal line. Currently the microchip is used to compile the Next Gen Stats we see on a weekly basis but nothing more.

Whilst the idea of the ball indicating when it crosses the line seems like a no-brainer there are things to bear in mind. The main time we would see this in use would be when a pile of bodies hides the ball from view. What needs to be remembered is that a play isn’t dead until someone’s knee or shoulder touches the floor. It complicates the issue as, although we may have the ball telling us it’s crossed the line, the refs still have to ascertain if the play was live when it happened.

This example aside, what the discussion does do is bring to the fore the idea of assistive technology and its place in the game.

Do We Need It?

With such a fast moving game there will always be things which are missed. The last time this came into the public discussion was following the Rams v Saints NFC Championship game in 2019. Pass interference has always been a bit of a grey area for officiators. In this game the refs took it a whole new level with the scores tied at 20-20 inside the last two minutes and the Saints driving inside the Rams 13 yard line. On 3rd and 10 Brees put a ball up for Tommy-Lee Lewis to catch, likely setting the Saints up with a fresh set of downs inside the Rams 3 yard line. Game, Set Match for the Saints and a Super Bowl appearance. If only…

We all know what happened however. Nikell Robey-Coleman got away with murder. He annihilated Lewis, well before the ball arrived, without once looking for the ball.

The upshot was that the Saints kicked a field goal, the Rams managed to level it up before going on to win in Overtime. The result of this blatantly obvious missed call was a change to the rules for the next season. For one year offensive and defensive pass interference calls and non-calls would be reviewable.

Now what could have possibly negated a) the injustice and b) the one year change to the rule would be some form of assistive technology. Much like VAR in soccer, had there been a remote judge looking at plays that had passed then could have been a correction of the obvious mistake. In isolation this may seem like a good thing. Certainly if you were a Saints fan you would have been championing the cause of VAR at that time.

Whilst I have you…

Do We Want It?

There are calls every week which players and fans do not agree with and this is part of the game. Whether there needs to be such a severe correction in the form of VAR is debatable. It’s worth noting that for most aspects of the game there is the possibility of a challenge being made by head coaches. This does disappear inside the last two minutes of each half however.

Sometimes it’s better the devil you know. VAR has changed the flow of soccer games, not for the better in my opinion. Whilst we are used to delays in the NFL as a result of time-outs and reviews it is the hidden corrections that have the biggest effect. I’d much rather see a game where 50/50 calls are left up to the gods. It adds to the excitement and drama of games.

Yes hindsight and replays will always be able to pick up mistakes, some game changing. Whilst it sucks to be the supporter of a team on the wrong end of these wide spread changes risk taking the soul of the game we love.

This article started off discussing smaller technological assistance. There may well be an argument for this but having seen VAR ruin soccer I’m wary of too much virtual assistance. One suggestion I have seen floated a couple of times is adding an additional ‘sky judge’. This would be another official in a box over the stadium who is in contact with the on-field crew.

Additional Assistance

An eye in the sky view would allow for incidents that were missed by the on-field refs to be considered. It would allow for issues such as PI to be reviewed, without the need for a challenge, if not seen immediately. There would though need to be rules regarding what the sky judge could review and have an input on. Done properly, catching obvious mistakes in the moment could only be a good thing for the game.

I would only ever advocate for this theoretical judge to cover game defining issues. Things such as PI, obvious fouls and other important plays. Roger Goodell has indicated that he is open to welcoming solutions to these issues.

“I personally believe it [the PI challenge rule vote] was the fact that every club wanted to get, and the league wanted to get these plays right. Replay has been an important tool for us. It wasn’t able to correct something we wanted to have corrected in the past. That to me was the driving force at the end of the day. Our job is to get these right and we should use every available means to get them right.”

Ultimately the PI challenge rule only lasted one season but it is encouraging to see that the NFL are looking for ways to fix errors. Replay has been an outstanding success without a doubt. Every year teams can suggest new rules and changes to current ones that are then voted on. Long term, I’d expect to see another member of the game day officials added.

To Conclude…

Basically all I want is the NFL to find a way to correct egregious mistakes without affecting the game negatively. Do I have the answers for how this should be done? No. I have faith that over time things such as this will be corrected but not without a couple of false starts. The PI challenge rule didn’t work because it seemed that the official charged with making the call didn’t want to overturn the original call unless it was undeniable. That is probably for the best. I think that the on-field refs should control the game. It is why they are there. Assistance doing this is different to sending decisions to head office.

To go full circle, in the future I think we will see the chip in the ball used for more than it is currently. Little adaptions like this, if they can be made to work, mean there is one less thing for the refs to worry about. This frees them up to concentrate on other aspects of the game. You know, those huge PI calls they should have caught. I mean, if it wasn’t for that huge miss we would all have been saved from the dullest Super bowl ever!

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