The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project—unveiled every Wednesday from May through July—detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.
Can you imagine an NFL game without at least one pivotal replay review? Today the image of an official ducking under the tarp just before the commercial break is commonplace, but in 1986 the concept was met with much derision. Following years of debate about whether to leave officiating in the hands of the men on the field or to turn to technology for assistance—why let bad calls stand when everyone watching on television can see that they’re obviously wrong?—owners voted by 23-4-1 to approve limited replay for the ’86 season. The first ever review, on the third play from scrimmage during Cleveland’s Week 1 visit to Chicago that year, upheld Browns defensive back Al Gross’ end zone fumble recovery for a touchdown. Only the Browns, it seemed, were happy. “There is nothing more boring in all of sports,” SI’s Jack McCallum wrote in 1987, “than watching 22 behemoths twiddle their thumbs while an unseen auditor in a booth studies a replay.”
There was plenty reason to be skeptical of the value of replay back then: 336 of the 374 plays chosen for review by the officials were upheld that first season, and as today some calls that were overturned were later judged to have been correct on the field. Football nation engaged in philosophical debates about the meaning of “indisputable visual evidence” or asked what the point was. When Pete Rozelle retired in 1989, support declined, and owners voted to scrap review from 1992 to 1998. It returned with a new, more refined scope in ’99—and better results. Today about 40% of plays are overturned. Nobody seems to mind the breaks.