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Today in Sports History: 3/11 – The NFL Adopts Instant Replay

Today in sports history (1986), the NFL adopted a rule that would go on to change the landscape of the league. The NFL adopted a limited instant replay rule. Prior to the introduction of the instant replay rule, coaches had no capacity to challenge a ruling made by a referee. This gave officials a better opportunity to control the game. The only chance that coaches had to overturn a call was hoping that refs would discuss the call during a game.

Even though this was a limited instant replay rule, this would lay the foundation of what we see in the NFL today.

NFL Instant Replay Sports History
Credit: Elise Amendola/AP

Limited Instant Replay was Discarded in 1992

Even though the concept of instant replay was innovative, there were some kinks that needed to be worked out. The early iteration of instant replay was very limited. Only officials had the ability to initiate it. Even when it was initiated, the technology was lacking.

Cameras were much different back then, so it was not possible to get every angle of the play. Even if they could, the NFL just did not have the staff to do so. This leads to officials not being able to fully evaluate the play. Due to this, fans and NFL teams did not fully support the rule, as nothing was really changing. The concept for instant replay was ditched in 1992.

The rule was then brought back in 1999. Although this time, the NFL introduced a coaches challenge rule. This gave coaches the opportunity to request a review on plays where a review was deemed legal. This was implemented with the caveat that coaches could only challenge if they had at least one time out remaining. If a coach loses a challenge, then that team would be penalized with one timeout. This obviously became a huge part of the NFL as this is still used today. Most of the plays that are thought of to be “challengeable” are now automatic reviews – scores and turnovers.

One interesting piece found while researching this was an idea for how coaches could inform referees that they wanted to challenge. There was an idea that a coach and a referee had a vibrating pager that the coach would signal if they wanted to challenge a play. That obviously never came to fruition but laid the groundwork for the red challenge flag, which was introduced in 2004.


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