BAD CALLS; ARE REFS RUINING NFL GAME?
After further review: All right, bring back instant replay.
When it comes to the NFL and what to do about officials' mistakes, I've always been a people person, believed football should embrace the human element for good and ill, hated to see games decided by a bunch of VCRs.
Then, Sunday, I saw a game decided by one Earnie Frantz III and it all became perfectly clear.
Instant replay might be evil, but it's a necessary evil.
So who is Earnie Frantz III?
He's the insurance executive who, while moonlighting as an NFL head linesman, handed the New York Jets a fraudulent 32-31 victory against the Seattle Seahawks, signaling ``touchdown'' with 20 seconds left in the game even though Jets quarterback Vinnie Testaverde was tackled a foot short of the goal line.
Of all the official blunders that have, shall we say, livened up the National Football League in the past couple of months, this was the most blatant and the most instructive.
More so than the Cowboys-Cardinals controversy, in which the officials missed the pass interference in the end zone on the final play, preserving a Dallas victory. More so than the 49ers-Colts fiasco, in which a series of questionable calls kept San Francisco's winning rally alive, the football equivalent of the 1972 U.S.-USSR Olympic basketball game. More so than the Patriots-Bills sham, in which an out-of-bounds catch, ruled a completion, and an end-zone scramble, ruled pass interference, set up a New England victory.
More so than the Chargers-Ravens screw-up, in which Baltimore was denied a victory when Jermaine Lewis' 90-yard punt return was wiped out because he was ruled down by contact after San Diego's Darren Bennett tried to trip him illegally but missed. (Confused? Obviously you're not the only one.)
And more so than the Thanksgiving Day turkey in Detroit, when the overtime coin toss, which should be the simplest thing an official does all day, was messed up because the referee didn't hear the Steelers' Jerome Bettis call ``tails.''
Coincidentally, or not, that referee, a computer analyst named Phil Luckett, also worked the New York-Seattle game Sunday.
Now, you can ignore the overwrought rhetoric that came out of the Jets' and Seahawks' locker rooms.
``God's playing in some of these games,'' Jets coach Bill Parcells said after winning.
``This isn't just a game,'' Seahawks guard Pete Kendall said after losing. ``Wins and losses have serious effects on people's lives; careers are at stake.''
It might not really be that dire, but all of these disputes have demonstrated that NFL officiating is as inadequate as it's been in a long time - since last year or maybe the year before.
I say inadequate instead of bad because it's the contention here that NFL officials aren't any less competent than they used to be, it's just that the game has become too fast and the rules too complex for any group of seven humans to police.
That's why one of the most frequently proposed solutions to the officiating problem is so pointless.
It's noted that football is the only major-league sport that doesn't employ full-time officials, as if lack of practice or dedication causes their mistakes. Of course, football is the only major-league sport that plays just once a week.
What would officials do on the other six days? Read rule books over and over? Watch videotape of their errors? Jog? Referee Raiders scrimmages?
No amount of practice will make the difference between seeing Testaverde in the end zone and seeing reality. No amount of physical fitness will put Earnie Frantz III in better position to make the call.
The fact is that in the course of an NFL game, which will typically include more than 150 snaps or kicks, there are going to be some blown calls. Even if the percentage is low, if the mistakes include a game-deciding play, they're impossible to shrug off.
And when everybody else in East Rutherford, N.J., can see what the head linesman couldn't, and when everybody is powerless to correct the error, then the league's credibility is in jeopardy.
What can the NFL do? A few simple things:
Stop this cowardly practice of automatically fining players and team executives for criticizing officials (as long as they don't get abusive or violent). Bills owner Ralph Wilson faces a $50,000 fine for his comments after the Patriots game. The league would earn more respect by facing the criticism than by trying to stifle it.
Simplify the rule book. The NFL changes a few rules every summer, almost always by adding two when subtracting one would do. TV announcers spend half the game talking about minutiae like illegal formations, and it doesn't have to be that way.
Most important, use the instant replay to overturn significant errors.
The NFL did just that for six seasons ending in 1991, but the system was overused and intrusive, sometimes interrupting the action for five minutes. The year instant replay was voted out, the officiating seemed to improve, as if responding to the challenge.
Obviously, that's worn off. Four of the past five Sundays have seen games decided by officials' decisions that were at best debatable and at worst laughable.
The question is how to make instant replay agreeable to traditionalists like me.
Here's a plan: Allow each team's coach to challenge two calls per game. Put a TV set on the sidelines on which network replays can be viewed. Make the referee - the officiating crew chief - watch the replays.
If a call turns out to be correct or the replay is inconclusive, let the play stand. If the ref sees a call is wrong, make the correction on the field. If the ref lacks the guts to overturn a colleague's bad call, or if he still can't see that Testaverde was stopped short of the goal line, presumably that will be reflected in his next performance review.
And, by the way, let's not pretend that players and coaches are pure when it comes to on-the-field justice. Most incomplete passes find receivers pleading for pass interference whether it occurred or not. Most fumbles find defensive players ``helping'' the refs by signaling a change of possession even when the offense recovered.
How about this addendum to the instant-replay rule: If a team is guilty of trying to fool the officials that way, it loses one of its two challenges.
The good news is the NFL is likely to reinstate instant replay for next season. When team owners considered a proposal like the one above in March, their 21-9 vote in favor was two short of the three-quarters needed for adoption. But two of the ``no'' votes came from Arizona and Buffalo, each of which lost a game to referees' butchery in November.
The better news, which came Monday, is the league office is framing an instant-replay plan that could be voted into effect for this season's playoffs, which will begin Jan. 2 and will end with the Jan. 31 Super Bowl in Miami.
``Everyone's greatest fear is what happened yesterday happening in the Super Bowl,'' NFL spokesman Greg Aiello was quoted saying. ``We acknowledge today again that Testaverde hasn't scored.''
Now everybody knows it except Earnie Frantz III.
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Dec 8, 1998|
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