NFL needs to make call on officiating

November 27, 1998|By John Eisenberg

Three of the Ravens' 11 games have turned on blown calls by the officials. Numerous other games around the NFL have turned on dubious calls this season.

Yesterday, the officials couldn't even get the coin flip right before overtime in the Lions-Steelers game.

The NFL's officials are having such a bad year that the league office should draft a standard apology form for use during the week after a typical Sunday of boo-boos:

Dear (owner/coach/team): A review of Sunday's key a) holding, b) pass interference, c) tripping, d) leverage call has indicated that our official was, in fact, in error, and you were right to throw your helmet and pop a blood vessel complaining on the sideline. We apologize for any inconvenience and/or defeat. Have a nice day. P.S.: Please forward this letter of closure to the fans and discontinue contact with the league office regarding this matter.

The warm and fuzzy NFL of commissioner Paul Tagliabue probably will produce such a document if the refs keep blowing calls.

But, of course, what the league really needs to do is fix the problem. Improve the officiating.

And the chances of that are fairly slim.

There are only three ways to cut down on the bad calls. Bring back instant replay. Make the officials full-time employees instead of moonlighters. And change some of the rules that make their jobs so tough.

Of those three possibilities, only instant replay has a chance of becoming a reality.

Would the reinstallation of "replay" help? Sure, particularly if it runs more smoothly and intelligently than before, when it was marked by interminable delays and arbitrary challenges to questionable calls.

Here's how to make it work: Give each coach two challenges per half. Charge for a timeout if a coach challenges a call that isn't reversed. Don't charge him if the call gets reversed. Upstairs, put a techno-wiz in the booth with the standard retired official who can't program a VCR.

Right away, fewer games would turn on bad calls. And only big calls would get challenged, so games would still move along.

That kind of sensible blueprint, along with all the bad calls, has convinced purists such as Ted Marchibroda and many former anti-replay stalwarts (blush) that replay is now a good idea.

"I used to be against it, but I'm for it now," Marchibroda said recently.

It failed by just two votes at a league meeting last March and surely will get another chance, so there's hope. The Raiders and Chargers voted nay in March only because that blueprint had coaches forfeiting timeouts even when they successfully challenged a call. If the Raiders and Chargers support the better blueprint listed above, it could pass.

Still, seven teams are firmly opposed and only eight nays among the 31 franchises are needed to kill any proposal, so the odds are long. Only an embarrassingly bad call in, say, a Super Bowl would assure passage.

In any case, replay has a better chance of becoming a reality than a work force of full-time officials.

There's little doubt the quality of officiating would improve if the zebras honed their craft all year instead of rushing to games after spending all week in an insurance office.

And with the league having signed a $17.6 billion TV contract, there's plenty of money to pay the refs to work 16 Sundays and spend the rest of the year holding clinics, going to lunch, etc.

Why won't it happen? The NFL is terrified of baseball's example. The baseball umpires are full-time workers with a union that has become a powerful force beyond the control of the commissioner and owners. The control-freaky NFL doesn't want that.

And, hey, the quality of the umpiring in baseball has dropped precisely because the union is so strong. Umps who do a bad job seldom are penalized, resulting in an arrogant, complacent attitude that damages the game itself in the end.

So maybe it's not such a good idea to have full-time football officials.

How about a smaller stable of full-time head officials? That might cut down on the bad calls. Give it a try.

But in the end, the biggest problem are the rules themselves. They were simple 25 years ago, but they have become impossibly complicated and pro-offense in the wake of an orchestrated effort by the league and the networks to stimulate scoring for TV.

Do you think "leverage" was a penalty 25 years ago? Downfield chucks in the secondary? Tackling the quarterback at his knees? Do you think there were so many exceptions to the holding rule?

Officials have so much to look for now that it's no wonder they miss basic judgment calls. And though everyone blames them, the league and networks are equally at fault. The league and networks have made it so much harder for the refs to get all the big calls right.

But will the rules get any simpler after all these missed calls? No, they'll only get more complicated. For 17 million reasons.

In the end, there's little reason to expect the bad calls to stop or the officiating to improve. The NFL will say things are fine, which is nonsense. Things are not fine when one game a week is turning on a debatable call.

But knowing that controversy attracts attention and attention sells tickets, it's debatable whether the league even cares if the officials get those calls right.

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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