NFL should make the easy fixes to replay

Sunday's mess in Baltimore showed that the league needs to remind its officials what "indisputable" means and put cameras on the goal line.

Topics: Football, Peyton Manning,

Don Banks of Sports Illustrated — a past Panel o’ Experts champion — has a handy rundown of the most egregious mistakes from what he calls “the annus horribilis that 2008 has turned into for NFL game officials.”

Banks writes that Ed Hochuli’s Week 2 blunder that handed the Denver Broncos a victory over the San Diego Chargers is one bookend for the refereeing nightmare season and Sunday’s controversial replay overturn that gave the Pittsburgh Steelers the game-winning touchdown over the Baltimore Ravens is the other.

I admire his confidence that there won’t be an even better bookend in the last two weeks, though he does acknowledge the possibility. But those two calls would still be significant because they went a long way toward deciding two of the league’s eight divisions.

The Broncos, thanks to their win over the Chargers, lead San Diego by two games in the AFC West with two to play. A Chargers win — assuming everything since that date would have happened the same way, which of course one can’t assume but everyone does in sentences like this, and that’s really not the catastrophe some people like to pretend it is — would have resulted in a first-place tie today. The Steelers’ win over the Ravens Sunday clinched the AFC North title.

We shouldn’t hold our breath for the competition committee to provide any meaningful fixes, Banks writes, citing NFL sources who tell him nothing big is in the works. That’s a shame, but I can think of two ways that aren’t that big that would be immediate improvements to the replay system.

First, and easiest, and free, the NFL should crack down on the concept of “indisputable.” That’s what the video evidence is supposed to be before a call is overturned, and there’s been creep over the years away from indisputability.

That was the real problem with Sunday’s call by referee Walt Coleman, which happened in the final minute with the Ravens leading the Steelers 9-6. Santonio Holmes of the Steelers caught a pass with both feet in the end zone, but his body leaning forward, out of the end zone, toward the line of scrimmage. It wasn’t clear that the ball broke the plane of the goal line, required for a touchdown, before Holmes was pushed out of the end zone by tacklers. The ruling on the field was no touchdown, the ball spotted inside the 1, fourth and goal.

The replay official reviewed the play and ruled that the ball had broken the plane for a touchdown. Coleman, in announcing the decision, created confusion by mentioning Holmes’ two feet in the end zone without saying anything about the ball breaking the plane. He clarified after the game that he had said the bit about the feet to indicate that Holmes had made a legal catch. The replay ruling was that the ball had broken the plane.

I thought the ball broke the plane. I also thought it was possible the ball didn’t break the plane. None of the replay angles provided a view straight down the goal line. The long lenses used by TV cameras can make for tricky angles. You often are not seeing quite what you think you’re seeing because the shot is compressing the distance between the camera and what it’s looking at. There’s physics going on there. Or optics or something.

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I thought if I were a Steelers fan I’d think the replays showed an indisputable touchdown. I thought if I were a Ravens fan I’d think the play was indisputably not a touchdown. As a Raiders and Rams fan who was watching a 9-6 game in its 60th minute, I wasn’t sure I’d recognize a touchdown if I saw one.

But since I’m not a Steelers fan, the replays did not look like indisputable evidence of a touchdown to me. The continuing controversy over the call means that, by definition, I had it right. Reasonable people can and have disagreed about whether Holmes scored. That’s the very definition of disputable. The call, right or wrong, should have stood. No touchdown.

The rule says the evidence has to be indisputable. Enforce the rule.

As for the tricky angles: Why can’t the NFL just solve that problem once and for all? If the original ruling on the Holmes catch had stood, the Steelers would have had a fourth and goal inside the 1. Had they gone for it — is Steelers coach Mike Tomlin American hero material? — there would have been a network camera at the goal line on both sides of the field. A plunge or quarterback sneak could have been scrutinized on replay from the perfect angle.

So why doesn’t the NFL, rather than relying on network cameras, just set up a permanent camera at the goal line on both sides of the field? It’s ridiculous that this prime angle is only available on plays that start at or near the 1-yard line. The Holmes touchdown play started at the 4, and the NFL replay industrial complex was caught off-guard.

It would cost some money. Four fixed cameras on each of the NFL’s 31 fields would be ideal, but the league could probably get away with 32, two mobile cameras at each game, in position on whichever side of the field the teams are playing on. It’s not often that there’s a break-the-plane question on a play of more than 50 yards.

I know times are hard and everything. The NFL just laid off some people. But that was prudence, not poverty. I don’t think we’re talking about a whole lot of money, in the NFL scheme of things.

It would have to be worth something to cut down even a little bit on people talking about how bad NFL officiating has become. Usually, it’s not that the refs are bad. It’s that they’re operating in a bad system. A lot needs to be done to fix that system. But some fixes are easier than others. The NFL should start here.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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