If the NFL wants to take the controversy out of instant replay, it needs to take instant replay out of the NFL.
That becomes more evident every week that replay controversies and officiating fiascoes steal the spotlight from the games themselves. Take Week 12, for example. Please.
Last Sunday the focus was more on the men who make the calls -- and the replay man who overturns them -- than on the players who make the plays. Does that make sense? Do fans go to a game to see it decided by a man in a TV booth? Does the NFL care anymore?
Even Joe Browne, the league's vice president of communications, admitted last week's round of controversy produced a black eye for the NFL when he said, "There were several highlights during the 12th weekend. Unfortunately this one Sunday, the officiating was not one of them."
The officiating was abysmal in the Meadowlands, where Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson erupted in anger after a 22-9 loss to the New York Giants was punctuated by at least three very questionable calls. It wasn't much better in Kansas City, where officials twice subtracted 10 seconds from the clock on the same injury timeout at the end of the game, and let Denver quarterback John Elway get away with a touchdown pass after he had broken the plane of the line of scrimmage. Denver won, 24-20, when the shortchanged Chiefs ran out of time at the Broncos' 45-yard line.
Then, in the Sunday night game at Houston, officials inexplicably made no call on an obvious Cleveland interception -- and let the replay man in the booth take the interception away. Officials also took a touchdown away from Houston's Curtis Duncan when it was clear he had scored. Fortunately, both of those mistakes were negated in subsequent plays.
But the point is, replay isn't doing what it's supposed to do: correct mistakes.
George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, blames replay for the officiating failures we're seeing.
"Officials can't make a great call anymore," said Young, who has opposed replay from the beginning. "It's like it's got to be verified by replay or you can't make a great call. There's no way you can tell me officials like to be overruled.
"I think it [replay] is insidious. It goes against the authority of officials on the field. They ought to be running the game . . . There have been major efforts made to improve officiating. There's better communication between coaches and officials, better teaching, it's better organized and improved with new technology. There are so many more plus things being done for officials."
Yet, it doesn't escape Young that college games -- minus replay -- have far less controversy and criticism. This apparently didn't escape the competition committee last March, either. The committee voted 4-3 against retaining replay for a sixth season. Then the owners voted it in for another year, anyway.
They just don't get the message.
* WAKEUP CALL: Here's another message the owners ought to get. It comes courtesy of two legal minds who suggest the NFL may be in for trouble when the NFLPA takes its antitrust suit into a Minneapolis courtroom next February.
Both John Weistart, a Duke law professor and author of "The Law of Sport," and Gary Roberts, vice dean of Tulane University Law School, believe the players have an excellent chance of winning the case.
Said Roberts, who was a lawyer for the NFL in the Al Davis case: "If I were in Las Vegas setting odds, I would think the players have a better than even chance of winning a jury verdict. They've got to feel good about their chances at the trial.
"Where I think the players have to worry a great deal is in the appellate process because while it is somewhat more likely than not that the players would win a jury verdict, it's also probably somewhat more likely than not that that verdict would get set aside in appeal by mostly Republican-appointed judges who are going to require very strict adherence to narrow antitrust principles."
Weistart: "I just don't see any reason for the league to be optimistic about this case. If I were an owner, I'd be telling [commissioner] Paul Tagliabue to do exactly what he's doing: try to settle the thing out [of court]."
A loss in court for the NFL would have dire implications for NFL expansion, too.
* REALITY CHECK: Tampa Bay linebacker Broderick Thomas, who signed a five-year, $4.3 million deal as the first pick in the 1989 draft, wants to renegotiate the last two years of his contract. He leads the Bucs with 117 tackles, and has five sacks and four forced fumbles. A lot of good it has done the lowly (2-9) Buccaneers.
Explains Thomas, "I want to be treated fairly. I want to be taken care of. I want to be paid like one of the best. LT [Lawrence Taylor] is beginning to step down; I'm beginning to step up."
* TWO-MINUTE DRILL: Chiefs quarterback Steve DeBerg goes back to Cleveland this week. That's where he made his first NFL start, with the 49ers, in 1978 at the age of 24. He went 16-for-32 with three interceptions in a 24-7 49ers loss. Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar was 15 years old and in ninth grade in Boardman, Ohio, at the time . . . Believe it or not, one name being floated around as a candidate for the Colts' head coaching job is Ted Marchibroda, who was fired by Bob Irsay after the 1979 season. The leading candidate for the job remains Mike White, an assistant with the Raiders . . . By the way, the Colts' 17-point offensive outburst last week vaulted them past Redskins' place-kicker Chip Lohmiller, 106-103 . . . 49ers All-Pro receiver Jerry Rice, who has gone four weeks without catching a touchdown pass, is not a happy camper . . . Former Navy star Napoleon McCallum's 1-yard touchdown run for the Raiders last week was his first since 1986 in a disjointed career.