This story is interesting. Due to an obscure loophole in the way the NFL’s instant replay rule works, the Detroit Lions were penalized and denied the opportunity for replay review on what would have negated a touchdown and big gain by the Houston Texans. Houston won the game in overtime.
With instant replay available on TV, it was unfair that obviously-wrong calls could not be fixed. This led to the NFL implementing a system of replay review.
To avoid wasting time, it’s a challenge-based system. A coach has a red flag to throw when he wants a replay review. If a challenge fails, the team is charged with a timeout. If the challenge succeeds, there is no charged timeout. A team only gets two challenges per game (and later they added a 3rd challenge if the first two succeed). Also, a team cannot challenge a call if they are out of timeouts.
Only certain things are subject to review. For example, if there is a fumble shown on replay, but the referee blew his whistle early, then there would be a missed opportunity to recover the fumble or to advance the fumble. Players have to stop when the whistle blows for safety reasons. Also, certain judgement calls are not subject to review, including most penalties.
Because of the “whistle stops play” rule, referees are encouraged to not blow the whistle if there’s doubt, and let the replay fix it later. That may have happened on the play in the Detroit game. The referee may have been uncertain if the runner was down, and decided to let the play continue but fix it via replay later.
However, the challenge replay system has problems. At the end of the half, a team may be out of timeouts. This was handled with a different system. After the 2 minute warning or in overtime, there are no more challenges. Instead, a “replay official” decides if a play needs review, and buzzes the referee if he decides “yes”. This is a “booth review” and not a challenge by the coach.
This led to confusion. Sometimes, coaches will throw a challenge flag after the 2 minute warning. Either the coach was confused about the rule, or was intentionally delaying the game. The NFL decided to crack down on this, by penalizing teams for throwing a challenge flag inappropriately.
The NFL changed the replay rule again. In addition to the 2 minute warning or overtime, certain “big plays” were added to the “booth review” category. If the ruling by the on-field referees is a touchdown or turnover, then it’s a “booth review” with no challenge needed. This led to even more confusion, because some more plays are “booth reviews”. Also, if the ruling on the field is “not a touchdown” but the coach believes it is a touchdown, he needs to throw the challenge flag. That also is potentially confusing.
That’s what happened to Detroit. It was a touchdown, but the runner should have been ruled down much earlier, before the score and big gain. It was a “booth review”, but the coach threw the red challenge flag.
The penalty is too harsh, for incorrectly throwing a challenge flag. If it’s a “booth review” play and the coach throws the challenge flag, it’s a 15 yard penalty *AND* the team is denied the opportunity for a replay review. Because the coach threw the challenge flag on a “booth review” play, he got a 15 yard penalty *AND* was denied the chance to have the touchdown reversed by replay.
Someone could argue “An NFL coach should know the rules!”, but it’s a complicated rule that keeps changing, and the penalty for breaking it is too big compared to the offense.
There’s an obvious solution. If a coach throws a challenge flag during a “booth review” situation, then he should be charged a timeout, with no other penalty. The coach should also be charged a timeout if he throws the challenge flag for something that is not subject to replay review, i.e. a holding penalty. That would be a fair penalty, and would prevent a coach from throwing a challenge flag inappropriately to delay the game. The 15 yard penalty and denial of a “booth review” should only be imposed if the team is out of timeouts. The current rule is way too harsh.