For NFL officiating, precedent has “gone out the window” in recent years

This week’s edition of After Further Review on PFT Live took a look at, among other things, the decision by the replay official and/or league office to change the ruling on the field that a punt didn’t touch Patriots receiver N’Keal Harry.

The danger with the modified sky judge procedure is that, to overturn the ruling on the field, the visual evidence must be clear and obvious. That’s the same standard that applies for a full-blown replay review. But the decision is made in a much looser setting, in far less time.

Thus, if a replay review overturns a call where 50 drunks in a bar believe that the call on the field was wrong, a decision to flip the ruling on the field based on the modified sky-judge approach should require 500 or even 5000 drunks to believe a mistake was made.

The Harry play became problematic given the absence of clear and obvious evidence that the ball actually struck the facemask of N’Keal Harry. The ball moved, but without seeing it strike the facemask, there’s no clear and obvious evidence that it did so.

That issue was addressed by the NFL six years ago, when a ruling that a punt hadn’t been touched by the receiving team in a Bears-Seahawks game didn’t become a finding that a muff happened, via replay review.

Said former V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino at the time: “Does this ball really jump that far to the right where we think the ball clearly hit his leg? It’s reasonable to assume that it hit his leg. But, again, we cannot make a decision based on the ball changing direction. We have to see clear evidence that the ball absolutely touched his leg.”

During the quickly-implemented modified sky judge procedure, how aware is the replay official and/or the league office of his past precedent? As one source with knowledge of the dynamics recently explained it to PFT, precedent doesn’t matter.

“That has gone out the window the last few years,” the source said, adding that these decisions are seemingly made “in a vacuum” with “no thought” given to what has been done in similar situations.

That’s a damn shame, because the goal of centralized replay was to ensure consistency. If past precedent isn’t going to be respected, true consistency can never be achieved. Other than consistently making decisions without regard to those made before.

It’s an important consideration for the league, especially if (as it appears) a full-blown sky judge protocol is an inevitability. The standard to be used must be simple to understand and easy to apply, and those doing so must be aware of and willing to honor all past practices.

There’s no better way to get to that point, frankly, than to have everyone in the officiating department employed on a full-time basis.

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