It's time for NFL to hit erase button on instant replay

JOHN EISENBERG

January 08, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The entire emotional spectrum was covered in a single instant Saturday at 1:46 p.m., on the green plastic turf of Veterans Stadium. The Philadelphia Eagles were a portrait of unfettered joy, dancing in jubilant embraces. The Washington Redskins were as crestfallen as a groom left at the altar, barely able to reconcile the sudden reversal of their fortune.

It was football as opera, as dramatic as the denouement of "Madame Butterfly." And then it was gone. In a snap. Rewound and erased. Removed from existence. Through the magic of modern science -- in conjunction with the monarchs who run the NFL -- players, fans and millions of viewers were told to forget what they had seen. The replay official said so.

The Redskins had been driving near the end of the first half, and a pass was completed to Earnest Byner. The Eagles' Ben Smith made a Hall of Fame play, tackling Byner, causing a fumble, grabbing the ball and weaving 94 yards for a touchdown. It was no less than a 10-point swing, possibly decisive. Teammates prayed for Byner, who has a history of catastrophic error.

Only in the NFL would that sweep of emotions be wiped out by an unseen, essentially disembodied authority high above the field. It was terrible. Just terrible. Even though the call was correct -- Byner's arm hit the ground before he lost the ball, ending the play -- the sequence summed up just about everything wrong with instant replay, a gizmo we need to lose.

It undermines the authority of the officials, who, beaten down by constant second-guessing, are getting worse every year. It is terrible theater, full of long, vague delays -- particularly when, as in last weekend's playoffs, they go crazy and stop the game every few minutes to check everything from ball placement to the price of hot dogs.

Worst of all, it just isn't human. Football isn't played in slow motion. It is played and officiated by men who run, jump and make mistakes, and should be decided by men who run, jump and make mistakes. No game should be immune from life's imperfections; nothing else is. Remove the humanity and you're on the road to RoboBall. The game belongs on the field.

The only anti-replay argument not entailed in the Byner fumble was the errors. They got the call right that time. They don't always. Any fan can point to a half-dozen blown calls that should have been reversed and weren't, or correct calls that were overruled, creating an error where there wasn't one. Why bother with a catch-all if it doesn't catch all?

The pro-replay lobby will harumph that justice was served by the Byner call because it was correct, but the errors reappeared in the Bengals-Oilers game the next day. Two identical fumbles were treated differently, one not even reviewed, the other

overturned. With the usual five-minute Moe-Larry-and-Curly delay, of course.

The NFL thinks this is high-tech, but it's just a sophomoric, intrusive gadget. For every big call checked, three irrelevant ones go before the one-man judge-and-jury. (Ever notice that the U.S. Constitution is based on a system of checks and balances, but instant replays aren't?) It's pointless. Changing calls won't change results. The team playing the best will still win most of the time.

The NFL approved the system five years ago because it was afraid of the worst case, a Super Bowl coming down to a blown call. Well, only one game has come down to a replay (and they blew the call). To me, it's a self-conscious development that says the high, mighty NFL is insecure, worried about the trouble that would follow a big mistake.

Hey, baseball got a blown big call in the 1985 World Series and lived through it. Football is more than popular enough. Sure, it would be unfortunate if a mistake decided a Super Bowl. But the chances are small, and when you weigh that against all the delays, mistakes and shortcomings, it isn't nearly worth the trouble.

The lords of the NFL know this. They know they made a mistake. They're putting together this new league, the World League of American Football, and it won't have replay. Tex Schramm, as general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, got it passed in the NFL, and had it planned in the WLAF. But when he was fired as head of WLAF, replay was thrown out almost immediately.

The NFL owners put the idea to a vote every year, with 75 percent needed to keep it alive. The vote has often been close, as close as 21-7. But it always passes. Vito Stellino, The Sun's football wizard, draws a comparison with the Vietnam War in 1969. He says everyone involved knows it's a mistake now, but they don't want to admit it.

It's too bad. The emphasis should be on improving officials, not eroding their authority. The emphasis should be on making rules easier to understand. The whole replay mess -- the double standards, the faulty lines of communications, the insufficient evidence, the king's power, the endless whining about what is and isn't fair -- should get tossed. Let's just make honest calls and live with them. Let's just play ball.

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