Week 1 in the NFL featured a couple of coaches’ challenges going unrecognized, Nick Saban’s against Pittsburgh on the opening Thursday night being the most prominent example. The Wall Street Journal’s Russell Adams takes us back to those days, oh so long ago (1999, actually) when space-age gadgetry ruled the scene.
Heading into the 1999 season, the NFL thought it had finally settled on the perfect system for coaches to protest a call: a pager system — developed by Motorola Inc., one of the best-known technology companies — connecting the coaches with the refs. If a coach believed he was wronged, he could press two buttons on a device at his hip, which would cause a pager worn by field officials to vibrate. A ref would then enter a replay booth on the sideline and had 90 seconds to review the play on a touch-screen monitor that showed the action from six different angles. Each coach had two challenges a game and could use them at any time except the last two minutes of each half or overtime, when only the referees could decide whether to review a call.
“The principle seems simple enough,” says Charlie Casserly, formerly the general manager of the Houston Texans and a member of the league’s competition committee, which meets at the end of each season to discuss rule changes. “We’re in the 21st century here. Just press the buzzer.”
But it turned out to be more complicated. Sometimes the buzzer buzzed too late or didn’t buzz at all. Other times, coaches set it off inadvertently, as Dick Vermeil, the then coach of the St. Louis Rams, did four times in the first half of the first game he sported the belt pack. In a few cases, a coach set off the buzzer not to challenge a call but to delay the game and buy himself more time to make a decision about which play to run or whether to challenge the call. Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan on one occasion admitted to hitting the buzzer and then, after being told by an assistant that his challenge would likely be overruled, insisted that he had buzzed the refs inadvertently.
Before last season, the NFL decided to ditch the buzzer and move to the “challenge flags,” which at the time existed as a second option for coaches to alert referees to a challenge. The switch was a relief to many coaches and general managers who say the backup system was more reliable. “Mechanical things always fail, that’s a fact,” says Bill Polian, president of the Indianapolis Colts and also a member of the competition committee. “Sometimes your garage-door opener doesn’t work. The flag was perceived by most coaches as a better way of doing it.”