SI Vault
William O. Johnson
October 09, 1978
NFL officials have routinely botched up games this season with quick whistles and questionable calls, but Pete Rozelle insists that his men get them right 95% of the time. Tell that to Minnesota Coach Bud Grant
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October 09, 1978

It's Open Season On The Zebras

NFL officials have routinely botched up games this season with quick whistles and questionable calls, but Pete Rozelle insists that his men get them right 95% of the time. Tell that to Minnesota Coach Bud Grant

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Right or wrong, the decision in San Diego has led to the appearance of a funny new T shirt, illustrated with a blindfolded referee signaling a touchdown above the words IMMACULATE DECEPTION. Charger owner Eugene V. Klein says he is going to wear one of the shirts to the league meetings in March.

Perhaps one reason the number of dubious officiating decisions seems so shocking—and so flagrant—this year is that they have come directly after two of pro football's most infamous mistakes, both made in hypercritical contests late last year. The first involved a wrong call on a fumble by Baltimore's Bert Jones, playing against New England, in the last regular-season game, which ultimately cost the Miami Dolphins a playoff spot. The other also involved a fumble, this one by the Broncos' Rob Lytle, clearly seen by some 75 million people watching on TV but missed by all of the officials working the Denver-Oakland AFC championship game. It occurred near the Oakland goal line and was recovered by the Raiders—a crucial play that would have stopped the Broncos without a score. Instead, the officials ruled that the runner's forward motion had been stopped before he fumbled, and the Broncos, who won the game 20-17, went on to score a badly needed touchdown. That call was wrong, and so was the one involving Jones—and the NFL office later admitted as much.

Thus, long before the 1978 season began, there was concern over officiating. Al Davis, the managing partner of the Raiders, said early this summer, "The one thing I see as our next big crisis is the credibility of the league vis �vis officiating. It's something we have to recognize and do something about."

This is perhaps easier said than done. The pattern of errors and questioned calls this year is random and coincidental. Unlike last season, when the three most critical calls all went in favor of the home team, they have affected visitors as well as home teams; have involved almost every kind of play; have occurred early in games as well as late. However, not even the bleakest cynic has impugned the integrity of a single NFL official.

The question is whether a mere human being—or seven mere human beings (the current size of an officiating crew)—can bring law and order to a vast field populated with 22 speeding giants joined in hand-to-hand combat. Predictably enough, Rozelle is not quick to criticize his officials—or even to admit that they are any more or less given to error now than before. "Yes, there have been mistakes, but there were mistakes last year, too," he says. "The officials have literally thousands of opportunities for error in each game." To arrive at the number of potential calls an official might be faced with during a given game, he says, you multiply the average number of plays per game—about 160—by the number of players on the field, 22. That comes to 3,520 different instances which may require a judgment by a single official. "However, that's low," he adds, "since there are other complicating factors involved, such as emotionalism on the sidelines and maybe some improper understanding of the rules by players or coaches. Besides the sheer magnitude of possible judgments, the biggest problem is how to see what's happening with 22 huge bodies around you—any one of which might come into your line of vision. You're at field level; you have only one angle of vision. These are problems. We've added a seventh official, and it helps."

That it hasn't helped quite enough is obvious—but the question is, how can officiating be improved? Or can it be improved at all? One constant suggestion is to incorporate TV's instant-replay techniques as an element of officiating. This sounds like a cure-all, but it isn't. In 1976 the NFL performed a test at a preseason game between Dallas and Buffalo, using four of its own cameras and, as required, network shots. It was a game singularly free of problem plays. Yet, incredibly, even with that grand span of cameras covering the field, there was considerable doubt in deciding exactly what had really happened on each of half a dozen different plays involving everything from a bobbled pass to possible defensive holding. By no means did the electronic eye see all.

As Rozelle says, "It is all contingent on a camera's position and whether it has a clear angle at the play. So far, this has been the owners' major objection to bringing in instant replays to overrule officials' calls. It amounts to what they call 'selective overruling'—meaning, you never know when the TV cameras will give you a completely conclusive view of what happened on a disputed play."

Beyond what the cameras may or may not show, there is the problem of how much time it takes to rerun the tapes, to find the best view (if any) of the play, etc., etc. It is all just too cumbersome. But one fascinating (if slightly fantastic) suggestion has been to use TV replays vs. officiating errors as a new element of coaching strategy. Instead of having every play monitored as a check and balance against human mistakes, the idea is to incorporate a series of, say, three challenges for each team. If a coach thinks an official has made a wrong call, he challenges it and asks for a TV replay. If the cameras show the coach is right, the wrong call is rescinded. If he is wrong, he might be penalized 15 yards or have to give up a time-out.

There is probably a bit too much of scifi in that idea to appeal to most coaches, but this summer the NFL tried a simpler and more realistic experiment with TV during seven preseason games. The league had representatives at each game who monitored the network feeds as a check on the officials' calls. The purpose of the experiment was to determine just how feasible it would be to have an extra official watch what millions of TV fans are viewing and then rectify miscalls. The results of this test have not been evaluated yet.

Tommy Bell, for one, is vehemently opposed to instant replay on the grounds that it reduces the "human element" in a game. "If the game was infallible," he says, "it wouldn't be worth watching. And the fans wouldn't have anything to argue about." Bell particularly recalls a Baltimore- Cleveland playoff game years ago, when two instant-replay cameras clearly indicated that Official George Murphy had blown a call by ruling that Jimmy Orr was out of bounds when he caught a pass. Later, though, a third camera, operated by NFL Films, showed that Orr was juggling the ball on the way out. "The human eye," Bell says, "is better than the camera eye every time."

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