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The history of the NFL’s instant replay system

There was a time before "upon further review..."

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun Courtesy NFL)

To think of the today’s NFL without instant replay is near impossible, but the game-defining technology didn’t come into full effect until the mid 1980’s. Even then, the system was still finding its place in a game that had done just fine without it. Instant replay has changed the way games are officiated, and it all started with one man and a stopwatch. Art McNally, who just recently passed after being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, started toying with the idea of instant replay in the late 1970’s. The technology wouldn’t be fully implemented for another decade, though it would eventually change the landscape of professional sports forever.

From the NFL’s feature, History of Instant Replay:

The NFL first experimented with instant replay in 1976 when Art McNally, then the director of officiating, wanted to find out how long a video review would delay a game. Equipped with a stopwatch and video camera, he observed a “Monday Night Football” contest between the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills from a press box inside the stadium. 

“If there was any question, we took a look at it,” McNally said after the experiment. “We asked the camera technicians to give us different angles.”

He saw a missed call on a play involving O.J. Simpson that could have been corrected with replay review. McNally knew then: Replay could help football.  Two years later, the league first tested instant replay on a wider scale during seven nationally televised preseason games, starting with the 1978 Hall of Fame game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins. The system’s performance was lackluster. The technology was too costly to install at every stadium, the system needed more cameras than broadcasters used for games at the time, and calls remained inconclusive after lengthy reviews. It was clear instant replay was years away from being implemented full time. 

“We still think we need a minimum of 12 cameras to get all the angles on every play,” then-assistant supervisor of officials Nick Skorich said after that first game. “Electronically, I don’t know if we are advanced enough yet.” 



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