Thursday night’s game between the 49ers and Titans included, in the first half, a facemask penalty that clearly did not involve any contact with the facemask. As noted on Twitter at the time, this is precisely the kind of on-field mistake that a full-blown sky judge (or booth umpire, or whatever title would be used) could rectify.
There’s a sense that the NFL is moving in that direction. This year, the NFL has expanded the ability of the replay assistant and/or the league office to fix certain things without a full-blown replay review. The rules permit consultation and/or advice and/or a truncated replay review as to “specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present.” The process also can be used “to address game administration issues.”
Proper items for the modified sky-judge process, as of 2021, include: (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).
That’s straight from the rule book, and it’s a broad array of potential video fixes. But it’s not as comprehensive as it needs to be — as evidenced by the fact that the facemask foul from Thursday night clearly didn’t happen, but that there was no way to rectify it.
The NFL has justifiable concerns regarding the proper standard for altering rulings on the field and/or “unintended” (often a crutch for “unimagined,” as in “we failed to envision even though we should have”) consequences. As we’ve argued for years, the sky judge/booth umpire should be a full-fledged member of the officiating crew, with the specific mandate to bridge the gap between what the on-field officials see and what the rest of us see at home. If that’s the way it’s set up, it can work well.
It can work better than the current system, which tolerates too many errors that are obvious errors because, even though the officials on the field didn’t see it, everyone watching at home did. The sooner the gap is bridged, the more strongly fans will believe that officiating has improved.