Clear and obvious. Clear and obvious. Does that phrase mean the same to you as it does to me? In a complex language, and amid the inherent subjectivity of human judgment, is it possible that one person's clear and obvious could be another's not so much?
So went my thought process in Week 6 when Alberto Riveron, the NFL's new senior vice president of officiating, made what seemed to be the most aggressive replay reversal in some time. I wondered if we were witnessing a significant creep into on-field officiating and a new paradigm for how games could be decided.
Citing the NFL's standard -- there must be "clear and obvious" evidence to overturn a referee's call -- Riveron ruled that New York Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins had fumbled a fourth-quarter reception out of the end zone. The Jets lost both a touchdown and possession in what turned out to be a 24-17 loss to the New England Patriots.
During the delay, CBS showed nearly a half-dozen angles of the play. None conveyed the full story of the ball. It was reasonable that Seferian-Jenkins might have been out of bounds before regaining control of the loose ball, but even sensible extrapolation shouldn't suffice for a reversal.
Had Riveron's decision, supported by new vice president of replay Russell Yurk, signaled a new interpretation of the NFL's replay standard? After all, Riveron's two most recent predecessors -- Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira -- said on Fox Sports that they disagreed with the decision. Had we been wrong to focus on the league's offseason process shift -- final authority now rests with Riveron instead of the referee -- and not the people who would be executing that process?
I spent some time this week reviewing the Jets-Patriots play and putting it in context with the NFL's 2017 replay statistics. I also spoke with Riveron by phone.
Here's what I found out. Riveron and Yurk have reversed calls at a higher rate in 2017 compared to the previous two seasons. But it seems early to declare that the standard has changed or even that Riveron and Yurk will apply more aggressive attitudes over time. In the case of the Jets-Patriots play, the replay angle that convinced them to order a reversal -- and cited later by Riveron in an NFL Network appearance -- was never broadcast to the live CBS audience.
I asked Riveron if it were possible that the NFL's replay standard could have unintentionally changed under new management. Could 365 million people -- my inaccurate guess of the United States population -- think differently about the same words?
"If we go by the definition," Riveron said, "the answer is no. The standard has not changed. If you go by interpretation? Sure, 365 million people can have a different interpretation of the words. But then you have to take into account how long the individuals making the decision have been in this room. I have been in the replay room for three years, and the philosophy and application of the rule has not changed. That I can tell you."
Let's back up for a second and review the basics. The NFL established its Art McNally GameDay Central command room in 2014 to assist referees in making replay decisions. Blandino often saw the video, and rendered an opinion, before a referee had reached the sideline "hood" to see it for himself. Although the referee had the final call, Blandino's judgment increasingly informed those decisions over time.
So there wasn't much debate when NFL owners voted in March to slide authority from referees to Blandino. The substance of the calls wouldn't change, but efficiency and speed could increase. There also was little discussion when Riveron replaced Blandino, who resigned in April to join Fox Sports. As Blandino's deputy, Riveron had assisted in the replay process since its inception. Yurk, promoted to a new title at the same time, had spent the previous seven seasons as an NFL replay official.
But as a wise man once told me, people are human. Each of us carries our own perception, and it's fair to wonder if Riveron and Yurk would apply the exact same sensibility we had grown to expect during the Blandino era. As the chart shows, the NFL has reversed 48.3 percent of reviews this season -- including half of those initiated by the replay official. That's a much higher rate compared to the same time period in 2016 and slightly higher than 2015.
Riveron and Yurk study each replay call on a weekly basis and have found no common thread to explain the uptick.
"One season, we might be a little higher or lower than the previous season," Riveron said. "We haven't seen a trend or anything to get any deeper than that."
I'm not alarmed by those numbers, either. There are plenty of unrelated reasons for higher reversal rates, most notably a larger number of mistakes from referees. It's also possible that referees, on average, were less willing to reverse their own decisions than their boss is. And after watching Riveron's subsequent NFL Network appearance, in which he featured an angle that showed the ball still loose as Seferian-Jenkins hit the ground, I was less inclined to consider it an extrapolation.
It's only fair to point out that in Week 7, Riveron upheld a controversial touchdown call on what amounted to a jump ball between Seattle Seahawks receiver Paul Richardson and New York Giants safety Landon Collins. Richardson was first to the ball and Collins had it at the end of the play. But there was no angle that showed definitively when or if he had gained possession. In those cases, the standard demands that the call on the field stand -- and it did.
"The rule is that there must be clear and obvious evidence to overturn the call on the field," Riveron said. "That's what we did for three years before now. The process has changed, but the philosophy and the rules have not. The only thing that has changed is the process."
And the people, of course. The new regime does not appear to have initiated anything close to a fundamental shift, but I think it's worth monitoring for more subtle and less intentional changes. At the moment, the numbers are a bit more aggressive than in previous years. Chances are that they will even out over time. We'll be watching.