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Inside the NFL

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Tuesday December 08, 1998 04:59 PM

This week's topics:
Facing the Music | Backers Can't Agree on System 
The Bus Has a Flat | 49ers Hurting Without Tackle
Those Hoarsey Broncos | Going Deep
The Buzz | Dr. Z's Forecast

Facing the Music  

Behind the scenes with embattled officials as they prepare for a game

By Peter King

Sports Illustrated

The man with the snow-white hair, windbreaker and loafers settled into a couch in a Pittsburgh airport hotel lobby last Saturday night, and if you didn't know better, you might have thought he was a businessman who had just taken advantage of the October-like weather to sneak in one more round of golf in 1998. Instead, he was here to stand up for his part-time profession--NFL officiating--and his 111 colleagues who have come under so much fire for their recent mistakes.

"You'd have to be a recluse not to feel the heat," said 21-year veteran official Dick Hantak, 60, one of the league's 16 referees and the chief of the seven-man crew that worked the Patriots-Steelers game on Sunday. Ten days earlier referee Phil Luckett had presided over the botched overtime coin flip in the Steelers-Lions game, incorrectly handing the ball to Detroit, which promptly drove for the winning field goal. In the Patriots' final-play win over the Bills three days later, line judge Dave Anderson and field judge Dick Creed extended New England's decisive drive by incorrectly giving wideout Shawn Jefferson a completion on fourth-and-nine when he caught the ball out-of-bounds; on the next play side judge Terry McAulay made an incomprehensible pass interference call on a Hail Mary, setting up New England's winning touchdown.

"Don't misunderstand," Hantak said. "We should be criticized when we blow a call. It goes with the territory. But there were 2,200 calls last weekend, and how many are we talking about? Two?"

Two that may end up costing Buffalo a playoff spot. Hantak said the league's other officials "lived and died with that crew in New England. Unfortunately they missed two calls. But if they get the first call right, then the second play never happens. Our greatest fear--all of us--is that we'll do something to cost somebody a game."

On Sunday, Luckett's crew did just that. The Seahawks were leading the Jets 31-26 with 27 seconds to play when New York's Vinny Testaverde attempted a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal from the Seattle five. Head linesman Earnie Frantz immediately signaled touchdown. The crew huddled for almost a minute before Luckett finally signaled the same. However, TV replays showed that only the crown of Testaverde's helmet crossed the plane of the goal line, while the ball, which he bobbled short of the end zone, never made it across.

Can anybody say replay? Members of the media are rarely granted access to officials, but Hantak was allowed to shed light on several hot topics.

On instant replay: "I really don't care if it comes back. If we have any officials worried about replay, they shouldn't be on the staff. We're told to use a Wilson ball, so we use it. If we're told to use instant replay, we'll use it, and let the chips fall where they may."

On the cry for full-time officials: "We have lawyers, CEOs, businessmen doing this job. If you look at the cost analysis, I don't see how it would be worth it or how it would make the officials better."

On the blizzard of criticism: "All of us want to be liked, but it doesn't affect my job."

Hantak, a retired teacher, then hustled up two floors to the weekly meeting every referee has with his crew on the eve of a game. At a conference table with six fellow officials and, as always, two observers from the league office, Hantak attended to some housekeeping, then got down to business: watching and discussing director of officiating Jerry Seeman's weekly tape of plays from recent games with voice-over commentary from Seeman.

There were kudos all around the room for head linesman Dale Williams, who aced a call in the crew's previous game, Tennessee at Seattle. Oilers running back Eddie George grazed the right front-corner pylon on a two-point conversion run that would have tied the score in the fourth quarter. George, however, had the ball in his right hand, and it didn't break the plane of the goal line before he stepped out-of-bounds. Williams ruled no score. "Great job, Dale," Hantak said.

Late on the tape came the two plays from the Buffalo-New England game. A slow-motion replay showed that Jefferson did not get his feet down in bounds, prompting Seeman to say on the tape, "Look at the feet. Never got down. This is an incomplete pass." Seeman's voice had been professorial as he reviewed calls and tipped officials on fine points, but on the Hail Mary pass interference penalty his tone turned grim. "We have talked, men," Seeman said. "Your calls had better be Super Bowl calls.... We don't want to determine the outcome of games unless it's the most blatant thing you've seen." As the play was shown from several angles, the room grew silent. New England wideout Terry Glenn was slightly jostled, as everyone is on a Hail Mary, but there was no interference as he tried to catch the ball. "There is no foul," Seeman said with passion. "There is no foul. It's incomprehensible as much as we prepare.... When we make such a blatant error in judgment, we deserve the criticism we get." The room remained quiet as Seeman finished. "The greatest attribute of the NFL official is common sense. Under no conditions should an official or officials ever be involved in a situation like this again."

The crew spent another 90 minutes reviewing a video from Oilers-Seahawks, then took its weekly rules interpretation test and went over the answers. Hantak was in his room by 9:30 p.m., hoping to remain out of the spotlight during the next day's game at Three Rivers Stadium. "You know the greatest compliment we can get?" Hantak said. "It's at the end of the game, if people say, I wonder which officials worked that game?"

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Backers Can't Agree on System  

Year in and year out, Ralph Wilson has voiced opposition to the idea of using instant replay to aid officials, so when the Bills' owner said last week that he would support a limited use of videotape review, it was big news. With the expansion Browns expected to bring an additional vote of support, replay proponents should have the 24 votes they need at the NFL meetings in March to reinstate replays. On Monday the league was already exploring the possibility of a quick fix--a limited use of replays for this postseason. A vote is scheduled for next week.

But when the owners convene in the spring, can 24 agree on a permanent system? There is sentiment for three types of replay: 1) the original system, with an official reviewing certain types of calls in a booth high in the stadium; 2) a challenge format, in which coaches would be able to dispute two or three calls; and 3) a more radical system that would also include reviews of judgment calls such as pass interference.

The teams are so divided that it's hard to imagine any of the three plans getting 24 votes. Even some teams are split on the question. Members of the Steelers, for instance, disagree on how to implement it. Club president Dan Rooney wants the format that includes reviewing judgment calls. Coach Bill Cowher wants to pick up the system the league used for six years beginning in 1986; he hates the challenge concept because a coach will be powerless to contest a blatantly poor call if he has already used his allotted number of protests. But Cowher admits he might support the challenge system if he thought it was the only way to get replay back. "I guess a poor form's better than no form," he says.

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The Bus Has a Flat  

  The wheels have come off the Bus, who has one 100-yard rushing game in the last six weeks Al Teilemans
Steelers franchise back Jerome Bettis is a jovial sort, rarely without a smile. But last Saturday he looked tired, tired of struggling in a suddenly weak running game and worn out from the controversy that followed the botched overtime coin flip against the Lions. "The coin flip will be with me for the rest of my life," said Bettis, who called tails only to have referee Phil Luckett insist he said heads. "It'll never leave."

Lately it has seemed as though the first slump Bettis has endured since a disastrous year with the Rams in 1995 will be everlasting too. Dealt to the Steelers in '96, Bettis averaged 97 yards rushing per game over the next two regular seasons. This year he's struggling to reach the 1,000-yard mark. After a 12-carry, 48-yard performance in a 23-9 loss to the Patriots on Sunday, he has 879 yards with three games to play.

Bettis, 26, has been running behind an injury-wracked line, but what about the play-calling? On Pittsburgh's first 22 snaps against New England, he carried eight times for 44 yards, and the Steelers trailed only 6-0. But on the 39 plays during the rest of the game he touched the ball just four times. The Steelers ought to know better. If you bang the 252-pound Bettis long enough, he can break a defense. "It makes me laugh when people say I'm washed up or I've lost a step," he says. "We have just had no rhythm from one game to the next."

So the 7-6 Steelers, barring a three-game winning streak to end the regular season or a lot of help from teams ahead of them in the AFC wild-card chase, will miss the playoffs for the first time in coach Bill Cowher's seven years. The players can almost smell the off-season. "I'm confident things will work out for us," says linebacker Levon Kirkland, "if not this year then next year."

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Dispatches: 49ers Hurting Without Tackle  

Niners players and coaches are crushed by the loss of defensive tackle Bryant Young, who broke his right leg on Nov. 30 against the Giants. Already suspect at cornerback, San Francisco can't expect to go far in the playoffs with a tackle rotation of career backup Junior Bryant, converted end Gabe Wilkins and Lions reject Shane Bonham. Against the Panthers the 49ers blew a 21-point lead before winning in overtime 31-28. "He's not completely healthy, but it's time for Gabe to show us what he's got," coach Steve Mariucci says of Wilkins, an off-season free-agent acquisition.... Look for the Colts and the Packers to use their franchise tags on running back Marshall Faulk and wideout Antonio Freeman, respectively, effectively keeping them off the free-agent market in the off-season.

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The End Zone: Those Hoarsey Broncos  

In advance of his team's game with bitter rival Kansas City, ever-loquacious Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe refused to talk to the media. That, plus coach Mike Shanahan's dislike of the league's injury-reporting system, led the Broncos to add the following to last week's injury report: "TE Shannon Sharpe (laryngitis) probable."

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Going Deep  

The 1999 draft will have depth at the skill positions, particularly at quarterback. Based on interviews with personnel men from eight NFL teams, here are the probable top dozen picks -- including juniors (noted with asterisks) who are expected to come out early. Conspicuous by their absence are two highly touted juniors, Ohio State linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer and North Carolina cornerback Dre' Bly, both of whom had subpar seasons.

Tim Couch* QB Kentucky 6'5" 225
Rifle-armed passer could be the man who the expansion Browns build around
Ricky Williams RB Texas 6'0" 225
One of the draft's top prizes comes with one warning: He wants to play baseball, too
Daunte Culpepper QB Central Florida 6'4" 240
A polished Steve McNair as a passer, but he's a little slow afoot
Champ Bailey* WR-CB Georgia 6'1" 186
A Deion of sorts with great cover skills and the ability to double as a receiver
Torry Holt WR N.C. State 6'2" 186
Caught 88 passes, 10 for TDs, and returned two punts for scores in '98
Ebenezer Ekuban DE North Carolina 6'4" 265
His 4.67 speed makes this converted tight end a top pass-rushing prospect
Jevon Kearse* OLB Florida 6'5" 254
Speed rusher who could be tried at defensive end as a pro
David Boston* WR Ohio State 6'3" 215
Cocky, but has the speed and size of a prototypical big receiver
Akili Smith QB Oregon 6'3" 215
Burst onto the scene this season, completing 59% of his passes
Chris Claiborne* LB USC 6'3" 250
Tremendous playmaker whose stock has risen after big year with Trojans
Donovan McNabb QB Syracuse 6'3" 220
Mobile with strong arm; after great senior season could easily slip into top 10
John Tait* T BYU 6'6" 310
Quick feet make this mountain a bona fide blind-side protector

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The Buzz  

1. Green's Machine Can anybody in the NFC slow down the Vikings? Can the Broncos? With three games left, Minnesota has already scored more points (442) than 11 of the 12 playoff teams scored all last season. The Vikings' offense looks as dominating as the Super Bowl champion Bears' defense of 1985.

2. It's Easier Than It Looks Six days after Raiders quarterback Jeff George pronounced himself out for the year with a groin injury, sub Donald Hollas played one of the worst games in NFL history, throwing six interceptions and getting sacked eight times in a 27-17 loss to the Dolphins. "Funny," Hollas said after Oakland's fourth straight loss. "I was watching an HBO special, and some guy threw seven interceptions. I thought, How in the world can you throw seven interceptions?"

3. Here Come the Saints Four days after an inspirational talk by owner Tom Benson, the Saints spanked the Cowboys 22-3, holding Dallas to a franchise-record-low eight yards rushing. Afterward, Benson predicted that 6-7 New Orleans would make its first playoff appearance since '92. With games remaining against the Falcons, Cardinals and Bills, the Saints will have earned a spot in the postseason if they make it.

Issue date: December 14, 1998

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