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Not enough time for NFL to implement ‘sky judge’ in 2020

Referee Bill Vinovich made a crucial error during the 2019 NFC Championship game. (GETTY IMAGES)
Referee Bill Vinovich made a crucial error during the 2019 NFC Championship game. (GETTY IMAGES)

44% less time between possible passage and camps just one factor

The sky-judge concept in the NFL appears dead for 2020. Beyond this year? We’ll see.

A limited portion of the NFL’s competition committee does indeed favour the idea, league sources say — this, only a year after all members of the league’s keeper-of-the-rules body opposed the concept of an eighth official situated in the press box, empowered to correct any egregious gaffes.

There just isn’t time in this year’s drastically condensed off-season for the committee — in consultation with NFL leaders and the league’s officiating wing — to flush out the complicated idea further, to the point where committee members could take a definitive position either for or against the proposal, sources say.

Unanimous committee support likely would be required for owners to adopt the measure, as with most rules proposals.

And so, with the one-year experiment of permitting pass-interference coaches’ challenges having died a quick and ignominious death, the NFL’s biggest game-day problem remains (coronavirus concerns notwithstanding). That is, barring a massive change of heart over the next six weeks by the committee, or at the league or ownership levels, there will be no after-the-call mechanism in 2020 to correct any appalling judgment gaffe made by the seven-person on-field officiating crew, and not just with regard to pass interference.

The central replay command centre in New York City is empowered to overturn only select objective calls, not subjective.

A week and a half ago, we reported that the competition committee had done a 180 on the so-called “sky judge” concept. Two sources told us as much — one within the league and in a position to know (anonymously), the other the NFL’s senior VP of officiating, Dean Blandino (on the record).

The committee in late March “had an abbreviated call,” Blandino said, “and they went through all the rules proposals. And there is support for this.”

That’s true. But support is limited, sources this weekend said.

Only 12 months earlier, committee chair Rich McKay told reporters at the NFL’s annual meeting in Phoenix that the committee’s then-eight members unanimously opposed the sky-judge concept — even though the coaches sub-committee voiced strident support and lobbied hard for its incorporation.

Under the idea, a so-called sky judge would be situated in the press box at each game, technologically armed to instantly rewatch any play from myriad angles and be empowered to stop the game to confer with the on-field crew to fix any major miscalls, judgmental or otherwise.

In one of two 2020 rule proposals jointly submitted by the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers, the sky judge is referred to as a “Senior Technology Advisor to the Referee” or STAR.

On Friday the NFL announced the competition committee has not endorsed any of seven team-submitted rules proposals, previously announced. The committee only endorses when all members are on board.

Instead, the committee submitted two proposals of its own.

Typically, any proposal not unanimously advocated by committee members (there are nine this year) has little chance to gain support of at least 24 owners (of 32) needed to pass any new rule.

One of the committee’s 2020 proposals would strike the ability for a team to purposely commit multiple dead-ball fouls to manipulate a running game clock late in a game — a loophole exploited this past season by, and against, the New England Patriots. The other proposal would expand defenceless-player protection to ban hits on punt or kickoff returners a split-second after they catch the ball.

That the committee did not endorse either sky-judge proposal might suggest it still steadfastly opposes the concept. I’m told that’s not the case.

Rather, it’s primarily that this year’s short turnaround between rule passage and the beginning of training camps simply does not allow for proper flushing out of so sweeping a potential officiating change, let alone implementation of it, including team education.

On that point, whereas last year there were 113 days between passage of the PI-challenge rule (March 26) and the first possible day a team could open a training camp (July 17), this year — as the NFL’s schedule currently stands, following cancellation of the annual meeting — there are only 63 such days (from May 20 to July 22).

That’s 50 fewer days, a 44% reduction. And that’s significant.

Owners are now scheduled to vote on rules proposals at their spring meeting, scheduled for May 19-20 in Marina Del Ray, Calif.

In our interview with him on April 1, Blandino said as the NFL’s head of officiating from 2013-16 he would immediately fly back to New York City at conclusion of the annual meeting in late March, and begin the frantic work (with officials and teams alike) required to properly, smartly and smoothly incorporate that year’s new rules.

“(I’d be) starting to prepare for visits with every coaching staff, and putting together video based on rules changes and new points of emphasis,” Blandino said.

This off-season, Blandino’s successor Al Riveron could not properly begin those processes for another 5½ weeks, even if all parties had figured out precisely how they wanted the sky-judge idea to work.

Blandino on April 1 said adding a sky judge begs important questions that perhaps cannot be properly answered in so shortened a time frame. Sources on the weekend agreed.

For instance, which plays would he or she be involved in? All or only some? Subjective as well as objective? Could coaches still challenge if the sky judge felt no need to buzz down?

I’m told another big concern is where the NFL is supposed to find 17 top-notch officiating experts to act as a sky judge, each with the authority and experience both to do the job properly and earn the respect of a seven-member officiating crew?

Well, in answer to that concern, the league could raid the upper college ranks — as it annually does without apology at the other seven officiating positions. The equivalent of a sky judge works every major-conference college game, meaning in the non-conference part of a college season (i.e., September) as many as 14 could be working Big Ten games alone, and another 14 working SEC non-conference games, and so on.

Then there are a handful of recently retired, long-serving NFL referees who maybe could be lured back. Or, current on-field officials might want such a promotion, and each successful applicant would thereby lower the corresponding job vacancy to a less impactful officiating position. Say, line judge.

Yet another factor, per sources: What is the precise after-the-fact divvying of authority on reviews and overturns between a sky judge and the central replay command centre? The latter always has had carte-blanche authority.

“The way I see this,” Blandino said, “is this STAR, this advisor, is going to be communicating with the on-field crew, especially the referee … Will New York also be in communication with the STAR to provide input? It’s going to be interesting to see how they work this, if this does pass.”

Blandino did ask rhetorically in his April 1 interview: “Do we have enough time to do it properly (this year)?”

The competition committee ultimately decided no, it does not. There was just too much to do in too little time.

Maybe next year.

JoKryk@postmedia.com

@JohnKryk

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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