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“Expedited review” has become a vague and inconsistent device for fixing mistakes

Mike Florio and Chris Simms examine key moments where the calls didn’t go the 49ers’ way, including the DeVonta Smith catch, and question if changes could be coming in the offseason.

As the NFL inches toward embracing a full-blown sky judge/booth umpire procedure for supplementing on-field officiating, it’s using a hybrid system that many don’t understand -- and that the league doesn’t apply as consistently as it should.

The current procedure has its roots in the real-time communication technology that the league established nearly a decade ago to allow the league office to commandeer the replay-review process. Once the pipeline that feeds instantaneous video and audio to 345 Park Avenue was established, the league realized it could be used for other things.

It started with basic administrative matters, such as putting the ball in the right spot or fixing mistakes with the clock or the down. At times, many wondered whether the league office was using it to fix other things, technically in violation of the rules -- but as a practical matter aimed at getting calls right.

Some, like me, still believe to this day that it should have been used in the 2018 NFC Championship to direct the officials at the Superdome to drop a flag for pass interference on the Rams, rules regarding its usage be damned.

In recent years, the categories have expanded. Now, it’s generally called “expedited review.” But there doesn’t seem to be a clear understanding regarding when it can be used, how it can be used, and whether it is being used properly.

Here’s the relevant portion of the rulebook: “The Replay Official and designated members of the Officiating
department may consult with on-field officials, or conduct a replay review, or advise the game officials on specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present, and/or to address game administration issues, including, but not limited to: (a) penalty enforcement; (b) the proper down; (c) spot of a foul; (d) the game clock; (e) possession; (f) completed or intercepted pass; (g) touching of a loose ball, boundary line, goal line, or end line; (h) location of the football or a player in relation to a boundary line, the line of scrimmage, the line to gain, or the goal line; or (i) down by contact (when a player is not ruled down by contact on the field). Nothing in this Article precludes a Head Coach or Replay Official from initiating a challenge or review otherwise allowed under Rule 15, Section 1.”

The first part of the rule is significant, for two reasons. First, it’s very broad. There can be consultation with the officials OR a replay review OR advice provided regarding specific, objective aspects of a play.

Second, the rule says that the replay official and designated members of the officiating department “may” consult, etc. Not “shall,” but “may.” That’s an important distinction. “Shall” is mandatory; “may” is permissive.

They can do it. But they don’t have to do it.

It seems as if there’s no consistent procedure for using expedited review to affirmatively spot and fix all errors. Instead, it seems more like something they do if someone happens to notice.

Yesterday’s games provided multiple examples of “expedited review” in action, or not. In 49ers-Eagles, the league office (which has immediate access to all camera angles from the game site) did not notice that Philadelphia receiver Devonta Smith had lost possession of a key fourth-down reception before the Eagles rushed to the line and started the next play.

In Bengals-Chiefs, expedited review spotted that the shin of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was down before he threw a pass. This allowed the Bengals to not use a challenge, which coach Zac Taylor was prepared to do.

Also in Bengals-Chiefs, expedited review was not used to give the Chiefs a first down when receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling reached the ball forward on third down, beyond the line to gain. Chiefs coach Andy Reid was forced to use his last challenge in order to fix something that expedited review could have fixed.

Could have, not should have. Because the rule says “may” not “shall.”

This is something the league needs to rectify in March. There shouldn’t be inconsistency as to how it’s used. There shouldn’t be discretion as to when it will be used. And the league should work directly with the broadcast networks to help media and viewers better understand when and how expedited review does and doesn’t work.

Currently, “expedited review” is an amorphous device for the league office to wave a wand and fix some things, but not others. It should be far more clear, far more understandable, and far more consistently applied to all situations, for both teams.

The legalization and relentless promotion of gambling causes folks to embrace like never before the notion that games are rigged, even if they aren’t. Expedited review can fuel these conspiracy theories, because no one seems to really understand how it is and isn’t used.

More importantly, a vague and inconsistent process creates an opening for the unscrupulous to try to push an outcome one way or the other. Even if the league has never had a Tim Donaghy on the payroll, it should always be concerned about the possibility. And it should always be looking for ways to diminish the influence that one person can have over the outcome of a game.