(This column was originally published in the Contra Costa Times on Dec. 14, 2002)
By Gary Peterson
A CONFIDENTIAL NFL memo somehow made its way into the Minneapolis Star-Tribune this week. In the memo, the league admitted the officiating crew that worked last Sunday night’s Green Bay-Minnesota game made at least nine mistakes.
We know what you’re thinking. Only nine?
Yes, only nine. But eight came in the fourth quarter.
This confirms several self-evident truths about contemporary professional football. One, the game is almost too fast, too complex and burdened by too many arcane rules to be officiated perfectly. Two, even at that, officials aren’t coming as close to perfection as they should.
And three, replay is killing the game.
Not every mistake from last Sunday night’s game was reviewable. There was a bogus pass interference call on the Vikings that negated an interception on the Packers’ winning drive. You can’t review that. There should have been a penalty called on Green Bay’s Antuan Edwards when he hammered Minnesota’s Chris Walsh as Walsh was down on one knee, trying to stop the clock. You can’t review that.
Then there was the touchdown scored by Green Bay’s Robert Ferguson, who reached the ball across the goal line as he was falling to the ground. Turns out his knee touched down before the ball crossed the line. It should have been first-and-goal at the 1, not a touchdown. The Vikings didn’t challenge because they never saw a good angle on a replay until after the extra point was kicked. At that point, it was too late.
There are a million reasons why replay stinks, and that’s one of them. It allows television to help determine the outcome of a game. TV is supposed to be a neutral observer, but imagine this hypothetical scenario — the director of, say, a Vikings-Packers game grew up in Green Bay. His mom’s podiatrist golfs with Mike Sherman’s brother-in-law.
Or maybe the director simply has $250 on the Packers to cover.
Ferguson scores a touchdown that isn’t really a touchdown. The director sits on the definitive replay angle until after the extra point. The nontouchdown stands. Think it couldn’t happen? Think again.
That’s one of replay’s flaws. Another would be the tiny allotment of two challenges per half. That forces teams to decide — as the 49ers’ Steve Mariucci had to do earlier this season — whether to challenge a blatantly hideous call early in a half, or hoard the challenge for an even bigger foul-up that may (or may not) happen later.
(Hey, with NFL officials capable of eight mistakes per quarter, a guy doesn’t want to fall in love with the first terrible call he sees.)
But here is the overwhelming reason why replay is bad for the game — it makes on-field officials tentative. A runner falls down, the ball squirts out, and officials stand and watch instead of making a call. They fall back on the time-honored football dodge: We won’t know until we see the film.
Pretty soon officials are approaching every call with caution, even those that are not subject to review. Officials are supposed to be decisive and confident, but replay causes them to lose that edge. And it gives us nothing in return.
The whole argument for replay is to get it right. The big fear is having the wrong team win an important game. But ask yourself — how often is that fear realized? Once every 100 games? Once every 500 games? Once every 1,000 games?
Meanwhile, while we’re waiting for that one game in 1,000, replay is ruining the other 999 with incessant delays, nit-picking through grainy images of subcritical plays, and, worst of all, referees-turned-town criers giving us filibusters on every fine point of law along the way. Such as:
“That’s the end of the third quarter.”
“This is the two-minute warning.”
“Tax-free municipal bonds are really the way to go.”
“I thought you might like the recipe for my Aunt Edna’s kidney pie.”
Finally, this: Last January, on a snowy night in New England, we witnessed precisely the kind of 1-in-1,000 game that might — might — validate the atrocity of replay. A postseason game, a huge play late in the fourth quarter, and a challenge.
Replay showed the truth — that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady fumbled the football, with the Raiders recovering for a clinching turnover. Then Walt Coleman mumbled something about a Tuck Rule, the ruling on the field was overturned, and the wrong team won. And, we might add, went on to win the Super Bowl.
Which makes it official: Replay is a flawed concept, it is poorly implemented, and it produces imperfect results. As a bonus, it renders the league’s on-field officials passive and spineless.
Other than that it’s a whale of an idea. Right up there with kidney pie, according to a confidential NFL memo.