NFL officials, replays under heavy fire again

November 02, 1990|By Vito Stellino

When cornerback Eric Wright of the San Francisco 49ers was beaten by wide receiver Webster Slaughter of the Cleveland Browns late in the second quarter Sunday, Wright did the only thing he could do to prevent Slaughter from catching a touchdown pass.

He grabbed Slaughter by the face mask and dragged him to the ground.

"He beat me," Wright said. "If I'm in the right position to grab the guy, I'm going to grab the guy instead of giving up seven points."

Wright was willing to take the penalty rather than give up a touchdown.

In this case, Wright got a bonus. No penalty was called, and Slaughter then was given a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty from back judge Doug Toole for drop-kicking his helmet to protest the non-call.

The Browns wound up not getting any points out of the drive when they botched a field-goal attempt and lost to the unbeaten 49ers, 20-17.

It was the second straight week the Browns have been involved in a game that featured controversial officiating. The previous Monday night, there were three delays that totaled 13 minutes in the second period.

That followed a Monday night game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings in which there were also several controversial calls.

The result has been so much public debate about the quality of officiating in the league and whether instant replay is a help or a hindrancethat National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue recently sent the teams a memo warning them they risk substantial fines for publicly criticizing the officials.

That stopped the public comments, but not the private debate within the league.

For example, football people wonder how the officials could miss the Slaughter play. They also wonder if owner Norman Braman of the Philadelphia Eagles was right when he recently told USA Today that, "Everyone is cognizant of the general deteriorating of officiating."

Art McNally, the director of officials who is retiring after this season, has an answer for both questions.

He said it's easy for a back judge to get screened on a play such as the one involving Slaughter.

"I would love to see the networks experiment and put a ground level camera at the position of the back judge 17 yards down the field so you see that when a man moves in front of you, you can be screened," he said.

He said former commissioner Pete Rozelle had once even talked about putting an official "in the sky" to try to correct that problem.

McNally also said the quality of the officiating isn't declining.

"I am convinced the officials are still performing at an extremely high level of competency," he said. "I don't see any drop-off in their performance. They are going to make mistakes from time to time, but overall, the men do an outstanding job."

McNally conceded there were some problems in the Philadelphia-Minnesota game three weeks ago, but wouldn't discuss specific plays. The controversial calls including a Herschel Walker fumble that wasn't called because the whistle had blown.

But McNally said the officials in the Cleveland-Cincinnati game actually graded out well.

On the confusion about whether it was third or fourth down in the second quarter two plays after an instant replay reversal, McNally said the officials knew it was third down, but delayed the game because the sideline marker and the statistician both had fourth down.

McNally said the officials haven't lost track of the downs in an NFL game since 1968 when the Los Angeles Rams were given only three downs in a game against the Chicago Bears.

Jim Finks, the New Orleans Saints general manager, said the competition committee sent Tagliabue a series of proposals last spring in an attempt to improve officiating. One of them, sending officials to training camp last summer, has already been implemented.

Finks said the complaints by the players -- notably by the Bengals in the Cleveland game -- make things appear worse than they are.

"Boomer [Esiason] goes through his gyrations and gets his two minutes of TV time, and then he goes over to [coach] Sam [Wyche] and he's not going to be outdone by Boomer," Finks said. "Sam's so busy supervising the officials and developing dressing room policies that I don't know how he finds time to coach."

Finks and McNally still support instant replay although its critics insist it is eroding the authority of the officials and causes a lot of unnecessary delays.

New York Giants , general manager George Young, said he compares himself to "John the Baptist, a voice crying in the wilderness" with his complaints about instant replay.

"I'm not an official basher," Young said. "The officials need support, not things that make them look bad. The game belongs on the field."

Finks said instant replay is here to stay and the networks will use it even if the league doesn't.

So, the debate on instant replay -- now in its fifth year -- will continue. So will the debate on officiating, which goes back to the days of Jim Thorpe.

The only thing that will quiet it is a few weeks without controversial calls -- particularly during the national TV games.

"We've had these hassles before," McNally said. "It's all part of the business."

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