SI Vault
Peter King
December 14, 1998
Facing the Music Behind the scenes with embattled officials as they prepare for a game
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December 14, 1998

The Nfl

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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 rim 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?"

Instant Replay, Anyone?
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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