Is it my imagination or are the zebras getting worse? They made a bad spot on fourth down that kept New England's winning drive alive against the Jets. They ruled that the Raiders' Tim Brown trapped a ball, a call that forced Oakland to punt, setting up the Vikings' decisive drive in overtime. Replays showed that Brown had made the catch. They said Miami's Karim Abdul-Jabbar fumbled on New England's 28-yard line in the third quarter, even though he was clearly down. The Dolphins were leading 17-14 at the time, but the Patriots went on to win. They took away what could have been the tying touchdown from the Jets' Keyshawn Johnson in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Redskins. New York coach Rich Kotite later said a league official acknowledged that the call had been blown.
"Careers are at stake," Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf says. "Players get cut for mistakes, coaches and G.M.'s get fired. But what happens to officials? Nothing."
Does it make sense, with the game faster and tougher to follow than ever, with linemen bigger and harder to see around, to scrap, rather than to retain, a functional aid to accuracy? "The officials were sharper and crisper in the old replay days," Wolf says. "Put the eye back in the sky, and they'll be more conscientious."
Veteran refs hated that eye, even though they paid lip service to it publicly. Once, shortly before his retirement in 1990, Ben Dreith sounded off to me about it at a party at the Pro Bowl. "We've got an answer to that thing," he said. "The inadvertent whistle that stops the action. That'll keep 'em from going to the replay." Sure enough, the next season there was an epidemic of inadvertent whistles. The league office put a stop to that nonsense, then in 1992 the team owners voted instant replay out.
Even when you had replays, penalties weren't covered, and that's where you get the real inconsistencies—in pass interference, for instance, or with the illegal chuck. Different crews, even people within the same seven-man crew, interpret the rules differently. "You'll get bumped 15 or 18 yards downfield, and there's no flag," Seattle wideout Robb Thomas says. "And it's funny because every off-season you're told to come watch films with the officials, and they say, 'We're going to call that.' Then the season starts, and it changes again."
The penalties on a lot of calls are too severe for the crime—especially the automatic first down on a five-yard chuck. "You play your hearts out for three downs," Buffalo coach Marv Levy says, "and you've got 'em third-and-28 and somebody's called for an illegal chuck and it's first down all over again. Come on! That's a bad rule."
Ejections are another thing the zebras don't get right. When a fight breaks out, someone will get tossed and heavily fined, but nine times out of 10 he's not the one who started it. Replays in the league office will pick up the instigator—and he might get fined later—but he gels to finish the game. "[Steelers quarterback] Mike Tomczak body-slammed me," Houston free safety Marcus Robertson says. "I got thrown out for retaliating. I had to retaliate. How could I have gotten respect from my teammates? I would have heard it for the rest of the year, how I got body-slammed by a quarterback."
The game has changed, and the officiating has not kept up. The field is spread so wide the zebras can't hope to catch everything going on downfield. ("Put your older officials closer to the line," Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler says. "Have the younger ones as your back judges down-field.") The umpire, stationed behind an inside linebacker, is in a tough spot, in the middle of the meat-grinder, often getting run over as he's peering into a mass of 300-pound bodies, "I have trouble seeing around those big guys," Buffalo inside linebacker Chris Spielman says. "How can he?"
My solutions? I [ere are a few: 1) Bring back replay. 2) Let the replay official rule on penalty calls and sort out ejections after a fight. 3) Scrap the five-yard chuck rule if it's too unclear to be enforceable. 4) Strengthen supervision by the league office to establish more consistency in pass interference calls. 5) Add one. possibly two, officials downfield. 6) Open the officials' room to the press after games. Popes and presidents get interviewed, but only a pool reporter can talk to the zebras. They have to be held more accountable.