NFL will partner with Hawk-Eye to enhance instant replay capabilities and shorten delays

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In the NFL’s continued efforts to enhance and streamline its instant replay process, CBS Sports has learned the league will partner with Hawk-Eye Innovations to aid officials and shave seconds off delays.

The changes, according to multiple sources who spoke to CBS Sports, will include instituting Hawk-Eye’s state-of-the-art replay system that will allow the NFL to process live video in real time and sync up various camera angles seamlessly. This comes on the heels of team owners approving expanded duties for replay officials to help with clear, obvious and objective aspects of a play for game administration purposes.

Hawk-Eye is a leader in the sports technology field. It has been used for goal-line tech in international soccer, pit-lane officiating in NASCAR, and it’s perhaps best-known for its optical tracking system that enables electronic line calling in tennis.

The NFL will use Hawk-Eye’s Synchronized Multi-Angle Replay Technology (SMART) to get control of live video feeds from broadcast partners. All of those feeds can be synced together with time stamps to provide multiple angles of the same play at the exact same time. (TV partners have done something similar for viewers over the years, but not this precise or this quickly after the play.) CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported in 2019 on how the league was eyeing technology like this.

The point here is to both get as many calls as possible correct but also speed up the game. Of the 40,032 plays in the 2020 season, only 364 were reviewed. That’s slightly lower than the league’s 10-year average of 400 plays reviewed since 2011.

Interestingly, the NFL saw its highest reversal rate ever in 2020. Never before had the league seen half of its reviewed plays overturned, and going into 2020 only 38.6% of all reviews had been overturned since 1999. But in 2020, 54% of all reviews were reversed, representing an increase of 7 percentage points from the previous season.

The high percentage of reversals could be due to any combination of factors: no preseason warmups for officials to get into their groove, improved in-stadium technology gives clearer pictures and/or coaches simply getting better at what close calls to challenge.

With reversals up, that usually meant officials taking more time on reviews. And more time equals longer delays. The average delay for reviews in 2020 lasted 2 minutes and 26 seconds, which went up 18 seconds year-over-year and was well above the league-best mark of 1 minute, 44 seconds from the 2017 season.

For years, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made speeding up the game a focal point. We’ve seen more picture-in-picture commercials during games, for example, and referees no longer go “under the hood” to review plays but instead look at tablets on the field.

With the average delay steadily increasing since Goodell made speeding up the game such a priority, it’s no wonder the league is endeavoring this partnership now.

As an example, all turnovers are reviewed. When there’s a fumble, officials regularly (and correctly) let the play go rather than whistling it dead too quickly. But oftentimes the replay shows the runner’s knee was down well before the ball came out. That pause can be just long enough to necessitate an official timeout and TV commercial break. With this technology, the replay officials should be able to inform the referee of the clear and obvious ruling and not have to delay the game further.

I’m told teams and coaches should be learning more about this new technology during training camp. I’ve reached out to the league for comment to better understand how this technology will be integrated into game operations and will report back on what’s learned.

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