Home Run Throwback. Music City Miracle.

Roshan Reddy

For Buffalo Bills fans like me, those are six of the most depressing words in the English language (though no phrase will ever hurt more than “wide right”). It was Jan. 8, and the Bills were playing the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card round of the 2000 NFL playoffs. With 16 seconds left in the close contest, my beloved Bills took a 16-15 lead.

Sixteen seconds – I still cringe if the clock stops at that time, no matter what sport I’m watching. The image of Kevin Dyson running into the end zone after the lateral pass has been imprinted on my brain forever.

At the time, I was positive it was a forward pass and equally sure that the referee would reverse the call after the review. Of course, the play stood as called, and Buffalo retained its place as one of America’s most hard-luck sports cities.

It took a few days – and at least 100 viewings of the play in question – but I eventually came to terms with the fact that the officials made the right call. Even though I hated watching the Titans advance to the Super Bowl, I took some solace in knowing that instant replay enabled the officials to take extra time to make sure they got it right.

That play is a big reason why I support the use of instant replay in both professional and college football. Even so, I think there are major flaws in the way it is currently being used.

One of the biggest issues with replay in college football is that it hasn’t been uniformly adopted across Division I-A. The Big Ten introduced instant replay to the college game last season, and the experiment was widely seen as a success. Perhaps the best indication of that is the spread of the practice this year – nine of the 11 Division I-A conferences have implemented some form of replay.

And in most cases, instant replay has enabled officials to make better calls. The first half of this year’s Michigan-Michigan State game is a perfect example. Michigan safety Willis Barringer appeared to intercept Drew Stanton but was stripped of the ball (linebacker Prescott Burgess ultimately recovered the fumble). The initial on-the-field ruling called it an incomplete pass, but after Michigan used a timeout, the referee reviewed the play and overturned the call, crediting Barringer with an interception.

The officials got it right on their second look, and that’s ultimately the point.

Even better evidence in support of instant replay can be seen when it isn’t used, as in the Southern Cal-Notre Dame game last weekend. Because it is not affiliated with a conference, Notre Dame leaves the decision about whether to use instant replay up to the visiting team. Southern Cal coach Pete Carroll hates replay so he declined to use reviews – which resulted in a number of questionable calls that benefited both teams.

All Division I-A teams should adopt similar – if not identical – rules regarding instant replay. Carroll and coaches like him will continue to argue that replay destroys the flow of the game, and critics will complain that pausing to review controversial calls makes close contests less exciting.

Well, it might not have measured up to Southern Cal-Notre Dame, but I don’t think anyone would call last weekend’s Michigan-Penn State game boring, reviews and all.

Still, instant replay isn’t flawless in college football, and the system needs to change. But the NCAA shouldn’t copy the NFL’s review policy entirely.

After seeing the Big Ten’s system in action, I think it’s ridiculous that the NFL restricts how many plays can be reviewed each game – at least outside the final two minutes of the half. Sometimes there are no questionable calls in a game, and coaches seem to use their challenges simply because they can. Other times it seems as if half the calls should be reviewed yet only a fraction of them can be.

Even though it adds time to the game, the Big Ten’s replay policy is an improvement over the NFL’s. Rather than estimating how many questionable calls the average game has, the Big Ten sets no limit on reviews, and I think it gives officials the best chance of getting it right. But it’s equally problematic to prohibit coaches from challenging calls entirely. We wouldn’t need instant replay if officials didn’t make mistakes, so why does the Big Ten leave the decision about whether to review a play up to a single official in the booth?

I think the best use of instant replay is a compromise between the NFL’s coaches-only policy and the Big Ten’s unlimited reviews: Don’t limit the number of times officials can use replay, but give coaches at least one opportunity to request a review per game.

If a coach thinks the officials missed a call, he should be able to challenge the ruling. In my opinion, it’s a check on human error. With no limit on how many plays can be reviewed, coaches shouldn’t need more than one challenge per game. And limitless reviews increase the officials’ ability to get any questionable call right – whether it happens in the first quarter or the game’s final play.

And hopefully – someday – there’ll be indisputable video evidence that benefits the Bills.

Stephanie Wright can be reached at smwr@umich.edu.

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