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Art McNally, NFL’s ‘father of instant replay,’ dies at 97

NFL official Art McNally was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2022. (David Dermer/AP)

In the fourth quarter of a preseason National Football League game on Aug. 18, 1985, a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers leaped at midfield to grab a pass. The ball came loose, and the Denver Broncos recovered. A fumble, the official ruled.

Maybe not, thought Art McNally, the head of league officiating. He had persuaded the NFL to test out video reviews of calls on the field during the preseason. So far, all the judgments on the field had stood up to challenges for video scrutiny.

This time, Mr. McNally was not sure. He quickly checked the videotape. It showed that the 49ers’ Jerry Rice had dropped the ball before his feet hit the turf. No fumble, he ruled.

The moment in Denver’s 20-13 victory was the league’s first video-overturned call — and underscored the wide-ranging influence Mr. McNally wielded over football for decades as he expanded the scope of officiating and led rule changes that helped modernize the game into a more pass-focused, higher-scoring style.

“He’s the father of modern officiating,” said Bill Polian, a member of the selection committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Mr. McNally was inducted in 2022 as the first on-field official bestowed the honor. Mr. McNally died Jan. 1 at age 97 at a hospital in Newtown, Pa., the Hall of Fame announced. No cause was given.

Mr. McNally joined pro football in 1959 as a field judge, stationed behind the defense. The league “was short at the position, and I decided to go for it,” Mr. McNally told the Bucks County Courier Times last year.

He rose to other officiating duties, including crew chief. His last game in the NFL “zebra stripes” was Dec. 23, 1967, in a Green Bay Packers 28-7 playoff victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

Mr. McNally was taking off his field shoes when Packers Coach Vince Lombardi put his hand on his shoulder for a goodbye, recounted Mr. McNally’s son-in-law, Brian O’Hara. “Hey, Art,” Lombardi said, according to O’Hara. “I hear you’re going to the league offices.”

In New York, Mr. McNally instituted an extensive system of evaluating the officiating each week, including phone calls to the officials, written reports and film reviews. Mr. McNally also advocated rule changes that opened up the game for the offense.

Part of the new look supported by McNally included limiting a defender’s contact with pass receivers after five yards and allowing offensive linemen to use their arms and hands to block pass rushers.

Mr. McNally’s biggest stamp on the game, however, was embracing technology to give him the nickname “father of instant replay.”

McNally led experiments with the video review in the 1970s. In a 1976 “Monday Night Football” game between the Buffalo Bills and the Dallas Cowboys, Mr. McNally used a stopwatch to check the time between a call on the field and how quickly a video review could be assessed. Too long, he decided.

The NFL tested instant-replay review again during the 1978 preseason. There were not enough cameras in place to make it effective.

“Everybody agreed to forget about it,” Mr. McNally said.

He did not. After the 1985 preseason tests, the team owners voted 23-4-1 to adopt video review for the upcoming season. The video officials at a stadium used two nine-inch television monitors and two videocassette recorders capable of immediate replay. Reviews were set for a maximum of two minutes.

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There were some glaring growing pains. During an October 1986 game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Raiders, a video review overturned a touchdown call on the field for the Raiders. But the on-field official misheard the video booth message over a walkie-talkie. The touchdown stood and the Raiders won, 24-17.

“I don’t like it,” Minnesota Vikings Coach Jerry Burns said after a game that season. “It makes the crowd hostile.”

In 1986, video reviews were used 374 times, about 1.6 times per game, with 38 on-field calls reversed, the NFL said.

“We’ve got some bugs that came up,” Mr. McNally said, “but, personally, our people feel that this is excellent for the game.”

The system lasted six years. The owners voted to abandon video review for the 1992 season, saying that it slowed the game and that the on-field officiating was sufficient.

Overall, officials reviewed 2,967 plays between 1986 and 1991, reversing 12.6 percent of the on-field calls. Video review returned in 1999.

Mr. McNally stepped down as head of officiating in March 1991, moving to the NFL-run World League as the officiating supervisor, then as an assistant supervisor of officiating and a trainer until 2015.

“Do the job,” Mr. McNally said in 2012 in advice to officials. “Hopefully nobody knows you’re around. Make the proper calls the way they should be with a heavy dose of common sense. You’re an NFL official. You’re paid to be perfect.”

$5 a game

Arthur Ignatius McNally was born on July 1, 1925, in Philadelphia, where his father was a firefighter and his mother stayed at home caring for five children. Mr. McNally joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school in 1942 and served in the Pacific and in Japan during the postwar occupation.

In the Marines, he got his first taste of officiating, working pickup football games. After returning to the United States, he studied at Temple University, graduating in 1950 with a degree in education. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that his first paid officiating job was in October 1946, earning $5 for a “sandlot” football game.

In the 1950s, he was a teacher and coach at Central High School in Philadelphia while moonlighting as an official at college football games and some NBA games.

“He never wore anyone’s jersey,” O’Hara said. “He was nobody’s fan.”

Mr. McNally is survived by his wife of 36 years, Sharon McNally; two sons and a daughter from his first marriage, to the former Rita Krout, who died in 1981; and eight grandchildren.

The NFL rules cover thousands of scenarios, but not everything. Mr. McNally heard complaints from Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula in December 1982 after the host New England Patriots used a small snowplow during a timeout to clear a path for kicker John Smith, who made a 33-yard field goal in a 3-0 win.

“There’s nothing in the rule book to cover it,” Mr. McNally said. The victory stood.