Penalties, Part 2

The NFL's dreadful officiating can't be ignored anymore. One solution: Give one ref a TV.


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Allen Barra
January 18, 2003 12:46AM (UTC)

The NFL's officiating problem is a disaster just waiting to happen. So far, the league hasn't had a disputed call on an important play in the Super Bowl, but given the plethora of problems in the playoffs and the horrific call that cost the Miami Hurricanes the national championship in college football, how far off can a game-turning bad call in the Super Bowl be?

Football is the sport with the shoddiest system of officiating, and it's the sport that needs good officiating the most. I'm told that the average number of possessions in a pro basketball game is somewhere between 80 and 90, with plenty of chances for either team to redeem an occasional bad call. In baseball, virtually every pitch is under the scrutiny of an umpire, and, potentially, no pitch is more important than any other. But in football, a team might get the ball just 10 or 11 times a game, and there are simply too few plays for anyone to reasonably contend that officiating blunders will "even out." In other words, in no other sport does an official's call carry the responsibility placed on a football referee.

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None of the things I'm hearing in the wake of the recent officiating controversies are comforting. For instance, here's former Giants quarterback and now CBS analyst Phil Simms: "You don't hear about bad calls when the game is a blowout. It gets all bent out of shape when an official makes a mistake in a big game." I like Phil, I always have, but when he talks like this, you wonder if he took one too many shots to the head. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the reason bad calls get more publicity in close games than in blowouts is because it doesn't matter how many points you lose by, whether the score is, say, 35-7 or 35-13. I might also suggest that one of the reasons the league is so unprepared to deal with bad calls in close games is because it's so slack in dealing with them when the games are blowouts.

Or, here's Charlie Casserly, the general manager of the Houston Texans: "Some of the things that we've seen happen lately actually happen every week. The difference is that the recent situations happened in the playoffs. I do know we have the best officials in sports." Well, that's something we can all feel good about. The bad officiating we've seen in the playoffs isn't unique to the playoffs; it's been there all season and we just didn't pay it enough attention.

Actually, there are two major headings that all the recent bad-call controversies can be filed under, and part of the problem is that many people are confusing the two. One category is officials who are either confused or ignorant of the rules. There are several things that could be done to improve this situation, and the first is to make fewer rules. The second would be to guarantee that the officials understand the existing rules better by making them real officials, by which I mean professionals. I'm so sick of the NFL bleeding about how it has the "best officials in sports" while it pursues the policy of hiring them out of the ranks of security guards and assistant high school football coaches. The so-called king of sports, for all its hundreds of millions in television revenue, is hurting itself by its miserly refusal to do what baseball decided to do half a century ago: hire professionals to do a professional's job.

The second category is officials who know the rule and still can't make the right call. This doesn't necessarily have to do with bad officiating. The old joke that 80,000 people in the stands can call the play better than the official on the field is, unfortunately, probably true. I mean, have you ever stood on a football field and tried to figure out what the hell is going on while 22 guys as fast as panthers and with the muscle mass of Kodiak bears streak around you? Call the right play? Don't you ever wonder how these poor bastards keep from being killed? Of all the people at the football game, the referees are usually the ones in the worst possible position to see what happens.

A cure for the refs' problems might be to use instant replay as God intended it to be used. The National Football League has been replaying plays for about 40 years now, and only in the last couple of years has it finally been dragged, kicking and screaming, into accepting the use of instant replay as an officiating tool. I always had to laugh when I heard an NFL official say that the use of instant replay in officiating would take "the human element" out of the game. One official whom I interviewed years ago for a TV Guide story told me that what it would do is "help us to do our jobs better." What he meant was that instant replay can't make a call for you; it can only give you better angles from which to make the call. But the NFL, in its infinite wisdom, complicated the problem by having people off the field of play stick their noses in the decision. And worse, they separated the officials so that when word came down on a call, it was almost like playing a game of "telephone" before the decision reached the public via the head linesman.

The proposed rule change about having all officials confer on an important call is a step in the right direction. I'd like to suggest another. It has long been an axiom that the fan watching on TV has the best seat in the house when it comes to seeing what happened -- or at least we do after we've watched the replay from three or four different camera angles. Why not simply put a TV booth somewhere on the sidelines, and when there's a disputed call, just have the officials run over and see what we're seeing. Then, for the first time, pro football officials will be as knowledgeable as the fans who berate them.

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I didn't get a chance to mention this last week, but the recent Hall of Fame vote is one of the most outrageous I can recall. First of all, major league baseball is more bogged down with rules and regulations than the NFL. It shouldn't matter when somebody played; if they are deserving of the Hall of Fame, their case should be allowed every year until they are admitted. Thus, years go by and players like Minnie Minoso, Ron Santo and Ken Boyer, all three of whom are better than many of the players in the Hall of Fame, are denied justice.

And speaking of being better than the players in the Hall of Fame, I would estimate, off the top of my head, that Ryne Sandberg, who was denied admission, was better than at least one-third, probably 40 percent and maybe 50 percent, of the players already in the HOF. Gary Carter, I have insisted for years, is one of the 10 best and maybe even one of the seven or eight best catchers in baseball history; Eddie Murray is probably one of the 10 or 12 best first basemen ever.

But Ryne Sandberg ... well, if I had all the players in baseball history coming to me to try out for a team, I'd probably pick Jackie Robinson and Joe Morgan ahead of Sandberg. If Rogers Hornsby and Sandberg both tried out for second base, I'd pick Sandberg for second and ask Hornsby to try out for first. Who does that leave in the American League? Maybe Roberto Alomar (though how he finishes up in the National League could affect my judgment). Perhaps, if you go back far enough, Charlie Gehringer and Eddie Collins or Nap Lajoie, but you've got to go back nearly 70 years just to get to Gehringer.

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This means, if I'm right, that there are maybe six or seven second basemen in all of baseball history who were better than Ryne Sandberg, and probably just four or five. Shouldn't being the, say, sixth-best player at your position over a 100-year stretch guarantee your being a first-ballot Hall of Famer?

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Note to TV and print commentators who are suggesting that the red shirts worn by rising Thai tennis star Paradorn Srichaphan are "showboating." The Thais consider red a very lucky color, particularly an item of clothing made out of Thai silk. Anyone who has spent a weekend or holiday in Bangkok knows exactly what I mean. When Paradorn pulls out the red shirt for a big match, it's no more an attempt to showboat than Notre Dame pulling out the green jerseys for a big game.

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Allen Barra

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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