Structural Flaws: NFL’s Third Challenge For Head Coaches

In Structural Flaws, I will discuss a particular rule or organizational structure in sports and explain why I agree or disagree with the issue. In this edition…the NFL’s third challenge for head coaches.


The NFL’s replay system has tremendously improved the game by allowing for incorrect calls to be overturned if video evidence clearly shows that the call was wrong. With so many moving parts and with human officials trying to watch every player on every play, there are going to be mistakes. The replay system does a great job of correcting missed calls, which is good for all parties involved.

The challenge system is the method by which coaches can instigate a review. Each head coach gets two challenges per game. If any challenge is successful, the call is overturned and the team issuing the challenge does not lose a time out. If any challenge is unsuccessful, the call stands and the team issuing the challenge loses a time out. If any team is successful on its first two challenges, the team receives a third challenge which they can use in the same manner as the first two. A team can only issue a challenge if they have at least one time out remaining in the half. All plays in the final two minutes of each half and overtime are not subject to coaches’ challenges. Instead, decisions regarding whether any of these plays should be reviewed by the referee are determined by replay officials. All scoring plays and turnovers are also not subject to coaches’ challenges, as these plays are automatically reviewed by the replay officials, who will let the referee know if the play does indeed need to be officially reviewed.

This system does a good job of correcting mistakes. An argument could definitely be made for scrapping the challenge system altogether and replacing it with the system used in the last two minutes of each half and overtime, but for now I will focus on the challenge system as it currently exists. There is one particular part of the challenge system that I really disagree with, that being the rewarding of a third challenge to any team that wins their first two challenges.

I do not believe a team should be rewarded a third challenge simply because they won their first two. I do not think it is not a skill to win two challenges, and therefore, it should not be rewarded with an extra one. Most of the time when a team issues a challenge, they are not necessarily confident that they are going to win the challenge. Sometimes the game situation just calls for a challenge to be made. For example, if a team gives up a big play that has a major detrimental impact on their chances to win the game, that team would practically be compelled to challenge the play if there is any question that the call might not be correct. The result of this replay should have no bearing on whether or not this team should receive another challenge.

Challenges are usually issued because there is a CHANCE they could be overturned and help your team, not because the team has exhibited some great skill and therefore has proven itself worthy of having more opportunities to do so again later in the game.

I suppose the argument could be made that if a team has had two bad calls go against them, and those calls have been overturned, then they deserve to get more chances because it is not their fault the officials messed up. My argument to that is that such a system discourages teams from challenging calls unless they are almost certain they will win the challenge. I contend that teams should be able to challenge questionable plays without the fear that losing a challenge could result in them not getting an extra one later. It is already risky enough that a team would lose a time out if a challenge fails. There should not be an extra risk of losing another opportunity to challenge simply because one or both of their two original challenges could not be overturned.

Another point to be made is that sometimes the video evidence isn’t strong enough to overturn a call even if the call on the field was incorrect. A coach might issue a challenge and be absolutely right, but if the camera wasn’t in the right spot, he could lose the challenge because the evidence cannot be physically seen on the replay. That is not the coach’s fault. The penalty of losing a time out should be enough. He should not be forced to lose an opportunity to issue an extra challenge later because of this.

So I believe that each team should get either two or three challenges per game (I don’t really have a preference), and no extra challenges should be awarded based upon the results from previous challenges.

What do you think?