Overturned by replay, reversed by committee

On The NFL

March 26, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just 23 yards away from the winning touchdown with 47 seconds left in the NFC title game in January, coach Tony Dungy was talking on the sidelines with quarterback Shaun King while waiting for the officials to put the ball in play.

"I was thinking this is a long TV timeout," Dungy said.

What he didn't realize was that the referee, Bill Carollo, was in the process of reversing Bert Emanuel's diving 12-yard catch that put the Bucs in a third-and-11 situation on the St. Louis Rams' 23.

Dungy couldn't believe the catch was overturned and the Bucs were marched back to the Rams' 35 in a third-and-23 situation.

Suddenly, what shaped up as an exciting finish turned into an anticlimactic one. Instead of having two shots to get 11 yards and a first down and then possibly having four shots at the end zone in the final 47 seconds, the Bucs needed 23 yards for a first down. King threw two incomplete desperation passes and the game was over.

That reversal was the end of a rocky first year for the return of instant replay.

The league maintains the official was right in overturning the call, but the competition committee has come up with a new interpretation and determined the same play will now be a legal catch.

In the new interpretation, a catch is legal if a player maintains control after the ball touches the ground. Dungy argues that was always a catch if a player had control when his knees hit the ground and said the rule book backs him up.

"You can change the rule or write a clarification or officiate the rule the way it's written," Dungy said.

In effect, the league is conceding the referee made a mistake without admitting he did.

The league is trying to defuse the controversy in an attempt to get save replay for another year at the annual owners' meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., this week.

Last year, it passed 28-3, with the Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets opposing. It takes only eight negative votes to kill replay, and it may be closer this time.

The competition committee recommended it by a 6-1 vote, but that's misleading because Arizona general manager Bob Ferguson voted for it, even though his owner, Bill Bidwill, has opposed replay.

Surprisingly enough, Dungy, who was fined $10,000 for complaining about another replay call earlier in the season, favors continuing replay even though he's philosophically against it.

He believes that because the league spent about $10 million implementing replay, it should try it another year instead of scrapping it.

The biggest argument for replay may be that under the current system, it's not used very often. Of the 248 regular-season games, only 95 had at least one challenge, and only 43 more than one. Only 57 calls were overturned.

The main problem with replay is that it sometimes creates controversy instead of settling it.

Regardless of whether replay survives this week, the debate about whether it's a plus for the league will probably continue.

In the spotlight

The strange thing about the Emanuel reversal is that he got more attention because it was overturned than he would have if the call had stood.

"If you didn't know who Bert Emanuel was before, after the game, my name was everywhere. People were talking about it. Everywhere I go, people tell me I was robbed," he said.

Actually, Emanuel has been a disappointing player in his two years with the Bucs, catching three touchdown passes since he was signed as a transition player from Atlanta. The Bucs want to restructure his contract that is scheduled to pay him a $3.2 million base salary this year.

Looking for answers

Even though Ray Lewis hasn't had his day in court, his indictment on a double murder charge seems to have had a profound impact on the NFL.

At his Super Bowl news conference in January, commissioner Paul Tagliabue downplayed the fact that Rae Carruth of Carolina was indicted on a murder charge last fall.

Tagliabue said the arrest rate of NFL players was lower than for the general population, and after the news conference, he even reminded reporters that a Philadelphia player, Blenda Gay, was killed by his wife two decades ago.

But Tagliabue is taking a more aggressive stance in the wake of Lewis' arrest.

He's met with a group of players and NFLPA head Gene Upshaw to discuss the issue of off-the-field conduct and suspended three players for misconduct.

At the NFL meetings this week, Tagliabue is going to keep the focus on the issue with an unusual session that will feature the owner and head coach of each team discussing the matter.

He'll have three coaches -- Brian Billick of the Ravens, Mike Holmgren of the Seattle Seahawks and Dungy -- lead a panel on the subject, and each coach will have one of his top assistants on hand. Marvin Lewis, the Ravens' defensive coordinator, will join Billick.

League officials want to see if they can come up with any new policy initiatives, including better screening of the players in the draft and a better way to identify at-risk players.

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