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Fixing It: Suspend, Simplify, and Upgrade the Technology

Feb 8, 2006, 4:38 AM EST

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You can reach Rich Tandler by email at WarpathInsiders@comcast.net

National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue is faced with a choice. He can either face the crisis of confidence in the game officials that reached its peak during last Sunday’s Super Bowl or he can sweep that crisis under the rug.

Given his history, the commish will probably choose to do the latter even though such a course of inaction risks the NFL being perceived in the same light as the WWF. His spokesman Greg Aiello has the broom out already, saying, “It was a very well-officiated playoffs, including the Super Bowl.” One has to wonder what playoffs he was watching, especially considering that the league actually had to apologize for blown call on the Troy Polamalu interception, something that is extremely rare if not unprecedented.

Aiello’s comments brought back memories of the likes of Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi Minister of “Information” and, for those of us with a few years on us, Joe Isuzu, a smiling, lying car salesman of commercial fame.

Or maybe he was more like Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars, waving his hand and trying to play Jedi mind tricks on us. “These are not the droids you’re looking for. . .(waves hand). . .That was flagrant holding on Locklear. . .”

The signs so far indicate that the commissioner’s head is buried well into the sand (or perhaps elsewhere that the sun doesn’t shine) about the officiating problem. Should he ever pull it out and choose to do something about it, however, here are a few common sense suggestions:

  • Suspend the members of the Super Bowl crew of officials for a minimum of two games at the start of next season: The Atlantic Coast Conference just suspended an entire officiating crew for one game for making one incorrect call on a technical foul in a game between Florida State and Duke; certainly the NFL has the guts to take such action if a college conference does. If not the whole crew, at least suspend referee Bill Leavy, the one who made the PI call on Jackson, the one who ran in, hesitated, looked again and then awarded Roethlisberger the TD (even Roethlisberger himself admitted on Letterman’s show that he didn’t think he’d scored), the one who just couldn’t keep his flag in his pocket on the holding call on Locklear, and the one who flagged Hasselbeck for the perfectly legal tackle he made after throwing an interception. The ones who made the calls involving the two quarterbacks, in particular, should be hit hard, perhaps even fired. The first one looked so bad because of the hesitation and the second one was just horrendously, inexcusably wrong. And while he’s at it, Tags needs to suspend Peter Morelli, the referee who overturned the Polamalu interception in the Steelers-Colts playoff game and whoever should have thrown a delay of game flag on Chicago near the end of the Panthers-Bears game. That should be just a start. If an official makes a bonehead call next year, he sits for a couple of weeks. The NFL announces it and everyone knows about it.
  • Simplify some of the rules: Start with the tuck rule. If the ball goes backwards as a result of a continuous motion of the quarterback’s arm, it’s a free ball, not an incomplete forward pass. That just makes sense. Go to the college rule that says you just have to have one foot inbounds to make a reception. That rule makes no provision for a “push out” by a defender, a rule that calls for a great deal of judgment by the official. You have to get a foot in, period. Simpler is better. Since pass interference is so much of a judgment call, use the college rule and make the penalty 15 yards instead of a spot foul except in the most flagrant cases. What is the need for the rule that says you have to maintain control of the ball when you hit the ground on a reception in the end zone? Common sense says that Edell Shepherd scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter in Tampa Bay’s Wild Card round loss to Washington. Why have a rule that runs counter to that? If, as everyone who played the game and his brother will tell you, holding can be called on every play, why not change the rules and legalize all but the most blatant use of hands?
  • Use technology: Some technological solutions are very simple. You could devise a contraption that would vibrate the instant the play clock hit zero. That way the official responsible for calling delay of game doesn’t have to look at the play clock, he would know if time had run out before the snap. A simple device in each official’s whistle could give a visual indication of exactly when that whistle blew, cleaning up a lot of the “down by contact” mess. Some solutions are a bit more complex and expensive. Why rely on the TV crew to have a camera right where you need it? Put a camera on each side of the goal lines and line them up precisely with the goal line. Between those and a computer-generated visualization of the plane of the goal line, there will never be any doubt about a play like Roethlisberger’s “score”. Other strategically placed cameras would aid in other calls. Replace the paint on the sideline with that tape used in tennis tournaments that sends out a signal when it’s contacted. Along with all of this, put an official in a booth with a high-definition monitor and a direct voice line to the referee. Let this official have some input when the striped shirts huddle. He would see when the whistles blew and when and where the sideline sensors are activated and his jurisdiction would be whatever he sees. He could say, “don’t make that call, you’ll just end up overturning it,” or, “tell me again exactly where the holding occurred there.” All of this may cost a couple of hundred thousand a game, but it’s not like the NFL can’t afford it. Indeed, with its very integrity being called into questions the league can’t afford not to do it.

There are calls to make the officials full time employees of the league. I wouldn’t be opposed to that, but somebody would need to explain to me what these guys would do during the week and during the offseason that would lead to them doing their jobs on Sundays better. I mean, baseball umpires (see the shrinking strike zone) and basketball officials (see traveling and the three-second rule) are full time and I don’t see where the officiating in those sports is any better than it is in the NFL. Again, I’m not against it, I just don’t see the benefits and therefore I don’t see it as a solution to the problem. My email address is at the top of this article if anyone could enlighten me here.

  1. Joe - Feb 17, 2006 at 5:23 PM

    In the case of the Roethlisberger and Alstott TDs, the original calls on the field were bad. However, there wasn’t obvious video evidence in either case to overturn them. The requirement for overturning a call is that the video evidence be overwhelming — and it wasn’t in either case.

    In the case of TDs, the burden of proof should be on the offense to punch the ball into the endzone. If it’s not overwhelmingly obvious in real time, the refs should call no TD and let video determine if that’s incorrect. TDs are worth too much to give them away when they’re undeserved.

  2. Anonymous - Feb 18, 2006 at 2:32 AM

    Replay should be used only to overturn calls that are so obviously wrong that a million fat slobs jump up out of their La-Z-Boys at once and yell in unison, “They got robbed!”

    There should be no splitting of hairs; there should not be reviews lasting minutes. If the replay official can’t see in 5 seconds that the call was obviously blown, it should stand.

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