Officials, Seeman's system not making grade


December 06, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

The timing was coincidental when Time magazine saluted Pete Rozelle last week as one of the "builders and titans" of the 20th century.

It just happened that the late NFL commissioner was honored in a week that showed how much pro football misses his leadership.

The officiating controversy illustrated the void that has existed in the league office since Rozelle stepped down in 1989 and was replaced by Paul Tagliabue.

The problem with the officials, surprisingly enough, probably isn't the officials.

They tend to be conscientious, hard-working men who take their part-time jobs very seriously and are successful in other fields.

The problem is the way the officiating office is run by Jerry Seeman, the former referee who was hired by Tagliabue as the director of officials after Art McNally retired in 1991.

Seeman's goal is to have his men call the perfect game, which might seem like an admirable goal. The trouble is it's impossible and his nitpicking has eroded the morale of the officials.

To put it in football terms, they're like Brett Favre this year after he lost his running game. The more he presses, the more interceptions he throws. The more the officials press to avoid mistakes, the more mistakes they make.

This problem has been talked about in private in the NFL for several years among team executives, but rarely on the record because the NFL metes out fines for criticizing the officials. Tagliabue has informed Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford he intends to fine them $50,000 each for their criticism of the officials last week.

But Dan Rooney, the Pittsburgh Steelers owner who was the victim of Coingate on Thanksgiving Day, articulated the problem on the record last week. He was subtle enough -- he didn't mention Seeman's name -- that he may avoid a fine, but it was obvious he was talking about Seeman.

"They're so gun-shy now, if they make some little mistake and they don't call something, they're going to be graded down. You're considered a good official or a bad official on the grades," Rooney said.

He added, "I think they work at taking judgment away from the officials and I think the officials should have judgment for what they're doing."

Seeman survives, though, because he's a loyal Tagliabue employee.

In Tagliabue's mind, the problem isn't the calls, but criticizing the calls. That's why he'll fine Wilson and Ford.

Tagliabue even said at a charity luncheon in New York last week, "This year our referees have been outstanding."

Should we believe him or our eyes? It's hard to solve a problem when you won't admit one even exists.

Wilson's reaction was almost unprecedented. He issued a statement of almost 300 words criticizing Tagliabue.

"I don't need pompous lectures from the commissioner," he said.

He anticipated Tagliabue's reaction. "The next time he may ask me to sit in the corner," he said.

This is the state of the NFL today as owners openly lampoon the commissioner. It's not likely to change before 2005. That's when Tagliabue has said he's going to retire as commissioner.

Counting the votes

The latest batch of blown calls means instant replay will be the main topic of debate at the owners' meeting in March.

The problem now is that the league wants a coach's challenge to limit the numbers of reviews, but some replay advocates want the old system in which a replay official can overturn calls.

The challenge system fell two votes shy last year by a 21-9 count (it only takes eight negative votes to defeat replay) when San Diego and Oakland cast the pivotal no votes because they oppose the challenge system.

San Diego general manager Bobby Beathard said he favors replay, but he hedged on whether he'll go for a challenge system this time to get some kind of replay.

Meanwhile, Wilson, who has been one of the seven consistent no votes, indicated he'll be willing to support replay now and that could put it over the top.

Replay, though, doesn't cover pass interference calls, and those are often the most controversial.

Team chaos

The San Francisco 49ers, once a model franchise, are in chaos.

Their top two executives, Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark, have left for Cleveland and there is virtually nobody in charge because the league has yet to give the green light to Eddie DeBartolo to take over the team again, even though his gambling problems in New Orleans seem to be behind him.

Meanwhile, DeBartolo seems interested in bringing back former coach Bill Walsh in some capacity once he regains control.

"They'd like to see me involved," Walsh said. "I'd concede that. Now, what the extent of that would be, who knows and whether I would do it, who knows?"

Walsh criticized the league for not insisting that the 49ers get compensation for Clark.

"I can't believe that the commissioner would allow the 49ers to sort of free fall like this without doing something to support whatever Eddie needs. I can't believe all these people going to Cleveland as they have, with no compensation whatsoever," he said.

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