In 1978, the National Football League began an extensive study on the feasibility of using instant replays to review officials' decisions on the field. In the spring and summer of 1985, the United States Football League, in its third year of operation, became the first to use instant replay to settle disputed calls.
Unlike the NFL, which experimented with instant replay during the past preseason, the USFL employed the process in its 40 regular-season games that were televised by ABC.
Unlike the NFL, which did and will allow unlimited reviews of questionable calls by an instant-replay official in the press box, the USFL allowed head coaches one "challenge" in each half. The challenge was made to the referee, who in turn threw a red flag to indicate a call was in dispute.
A review official in the press box would watch the replay on a television monitor, then relay his decision to the referee. The referee then would indicate whether the coach was correct and if the call should be reversed; or that a replay was imperfect or non-existent, and therefore there could be no challenge, or that the official was correct. In the latter case, the team that lost the challenge would lose a timeout. Or, if it had no timeouts left, it would be penalized 5 yards for delay of game.
"When we first used it in Tampa Bay," said Cal Lepore, the head of USFL officials and founder of the process, "the crowd wondered what the red flag meant. When it caught on, it put extra drama into our games. The fans would react to the red flag, and cheer or boo the final decision."
Red flags were thrown a total of 53 times. Of those, 14 calls were reversed in favor of the coaches. "And," said Lepore, "in 10 of those, the official's view of the play was either blocked or screened out. The other four? Those guys got a kick in the pants."
As in the NFL, decisions could only come up for review in the USFL if they involved movement of the ball. For example, fumble calls could be challenged. Did a receiver have clear possession on a catch before fumbling, or was a runner down when the ball popped out, which constitutes no fumble, or was he still up, which does? Was a pass complete, incomplete or intercepted? Was a receiver in bounds or out of bounds when he made the catch? Did a runner step out of bounds? Did the ball penetrate the end zone on a goal-line stand?
"The system is by no means foolproof," said Lepore. "Sometimes technical reasons prevented a challenge. Or there would be no replay available, or it was blurred, or the angle was so bad it made a valid reading impossible. No, our officials didn't mind the challenges. They knew that the reviewing official had to be absolutely certain, without a doubt. If there was any doubt at all, the call stood and the coach who challenged would be penalized."