Super Bowl 2019: VAR and what the Premier League can learn from NFL's 40-year search for replay perfection

English football continues to push on into a world of video replay but American football has been rolling with its ups and downs for decades

Ben Burrows
Monday 28 January 2019 13:46
New England Patriots coaches arrive at airport ahead of Super Bowl 2019

The ball drops to Murray Wallace in the 18-yard box. He swivels, shoots and watches as his left-foot strike is deflected off Jake Cooper’s arm and into the open net. Millwall are level with 15 minutes remaining against Premier League Everton and an FA Cup upset is well and truly on.

Drew Brees drops back and looks for Tommylee Lewis haring down the right sideline on a wheel route. He pulls the trigger and fires the ball straight to where his wide receiver is set to be. Already running to the boundary, cornerback Nickel Robey-Coleman has no chance of turning back and hammers into Lewis before the ball hits the turf. Pass incomplete. Fourth down. No flag.


"We have seven or eight players in the penalty area who can see the handball so how can the referee not see it?” Everton manager Marco Silva said shortly after watching his side tumble out of the FA Cup at Millwall on Saturday night. “It doesn’t make sense. If we are to be fair to all the clubs, it has to be for all the games."

It’s another week and with it comes another VAR controversy, whether it’s actually in use in the game or not. From Maurizio Sarri and a grainy slow-mo of Harry Kane’s protruding limbs in the Wembley tunnel two weeks ago to Jake Cooper’s all-too obvious stray arm at The Den this time, a replay or lack thereof continues to set the agenda across the game in this country whether we want it to or not.

Officiating divides opinion more than almost any other facet of elite sports and it’s often difficult to find any common ground on interventionism vs allowing the game to flow, but most agree that the standard of refereeing within football must improve and above all that a consistency of officiating be reached. Like Hawk-Eye in cricket or tennis, the introduction of technology to football was meant to eradicate the howler, but with more riding on every pass, cross, tackle and shot than ever before the need for a real solution is clear.

This coming weekend the NFL’s showpiece event takes place in Atlanta as the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams face off in Super Bowl 52.

While association football’s relationship with video replay remains firmly in its infancy it’s bigger, brasher cousin across the pond has been in bed with it for over 40 years.

Back in 1976, then-director of officiating Art McNally was observing a contest between the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills from the press box saw a missed call that would’ve been corrected by video review. He wondered how long an instant replay would delay a game and, in that moment, American football’s replay renaissance had begun.

Cooper's goal set Millwall on the way to an FA Cup upset 

A decade later and McNally’s vision came to be as 23 of the 28 team owners voted video replay review through for the 1986 season. A system not unlike VAR was born where debatable calls were eligible to be reviewed by an outside replay official. The on-field ref would ask for a second opinion and an official in a booth, aided by two nine inch screens and a VCR, would then have two minutes from the whistle to make his decision.

It wasn’t without its problems, however, and after one too many snafus the league voted it back out in 1991 with owners citing that the technology delayed the games too much and that the calls it did make weren’t the right ones enough of the time anyway. Sound familiar?

Under current rules head coach Sean Payton was unable to challenge the call

The debate of course never went away and with the sport’s popularity accelerating even further by the mid-nineties, replay was once again on the agenda. Away went the officials in a booth and in came on-field referees making the calls on the sideline. And, in a major step into the unknown, coaches were handed three challenges per half for use at their discretion when they felt a wrong call was made. As technological improvements continued apace and the delay in games came down a decade later the move was made permanent.

Tweaks continue to this day as a central officiating centre in New York makes the final decision on every reviewed call. However, certain plays - touchdowns and changes of possession - are automatically subject to review while a number of other contentious and possibly season-defining plays, as seen with Tommylee Lewis in New Orleans last week, are not even reviewable.

This has been the case for many years, but the incident with Lewis stuck in the craw more than most. For a start, if he had caught the ball then the Saints had won the game and were heading to the biggest show in sports. Secondly, the offending defender admitted to journalists straight away that it was not only definitely pass interference but also deliberate. Robey-Coleman also hit Lewis helmet-to-helmet, for which he has since been fined, but while his wallet is $26,000 lighter, he's still going to the Super Bowl. The New Orleans Saints aren't. Nobody wants big, season-defining moments to be decided like this. The technology is there and it works but the roles governing it still aren't quite right.

Now high-profile coaches, with the Patriots’ Bill Belichick a particularly vocal advocate, are calling for every play throughout a game to be made reviewable after it cost the Saints their trip to the Super Bowl.

It’s impossible not to see the parallels with the Premier League and calibrate the the NFL's timeline with the relative infancy of VAR in England. On one hand it might be a good thing that, with more and more at stake, the days of Jurgen Klopp throwing a red challenge flag to protest an officiating gaffe are likely not far around the corner. Similarly, though, the endless debate over what incidents should and should not be subject to video replays looks like it could well continue for many more decades if the NFL's unconvincing to-and-fro on the subject is to be replicated.

The key, however, is this. Four decades on from its birth, America’s biggest sport still hasn’t found the definitive answer to the problem Art McNally watched unfold all those years ago.

A week on from the NFC title game, still seething Saints fans have signed petitions and filed lawsuits after watching their side miss out on the Super Bowl at the hands of the referees. They have paid for and erected billboards in Atlanta. Owner Gayle Benson has written to the league demanding change. Star wide receiver Michael Thomas wanted the game replayed. The call - or more precisely, no call – was even brought up in The United States Senate. No, really. All this in a world where video replay is king.

"We don’t know if it’s the perfect system," Chicago Bears president Ted Phillips said after the 1999 vote. Just ask the Saints how perfect it is. Football should be careful what it wishes for. The NFL has given it a clear picture of what awaits.

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