Call it zebra flu, whistle fever, striped-shirt streptococcus. Whatever, the cause is readily diagnosed—it is the quality of officiating in the National Football League this year. The cure may be more difficult, for it is hard to remember a season that has produced such a rampant display of human fallibility as has been revealed—on television, always on television—by the officiating crews of the NFL. More than most men, football officials are destined to be forever defined by their failures rather than their successes. And it is probably (though not provably) true, as NFL Supervisor of Officials Art McNally insists, that their calls are correct upwards of 95% of the time. Yet that flawed 5% has had an enormously disproportionate influence this year.
Some of the officials' mistakes are merely funny—a grim referee marching off a penalty in the wrong direction, an excited touchdown signal after an interception in the end zone, some seemingly baffled head scratching over which penalty takes precedence. In one odd episode during a Buffalo- New York Jets game, an official walked off a 15-yard penalty, had the chains and down markers moved, then discovered there was an offsetting penalty. This called for play to resume at the original line of scrimmage, but none of the officials remembered where that was. A call went up to the press box to ask for the proper yard line, the answer was given and the ball was promptly put back into play—two yards away from the correct spot.
Other decisions have been less comic—and more costly. Perhaps every fan (to say nothing of every coach and every player) has his favorite official's misdemeanor—or felony. One, certainly, was the call during the overtime-period kick-off in the Pittsburgh- Cleveland game on Sept. 24. A lost Steeler fumble (later admitted to by the receiver) was ruled to be a dead ball because of a mistaken whistle; the quick whistle helped turn a near-certain Cleveland victory into a Steeler win. When the call occurred, Cleveland owner Art Modell bellowed in the press box, "No! We were robbed!" And Cleveland Safety Thorn Darden snarled later, "The game was stolen from us. The officials are like God. They have the power to give and take away. They decided this time to take away."
Three of the first four Tampa Bay games included questionable decisions that affected the outcome. "I don't understand officiating in the NFL," said Buc Coach John McKay. "They call more than in the colleges. Maybe it's because the games are closer. I had always thought that the best-officiated games were those when you weren't aware the officials were on the field. You sure are in the NFL. I don't know; I don't pretend to understand. I just stand and watch, and when I hear the crowd booing, I boo, too."
One of Tampa Bay's disputed games was a victory over Minnesota on Sept. 17, a win that hinged almost entirely on a wrong call—McNally admits to that—involving a punt that officials erroneously ruled had been touched by a Viking back. The ball was awarded to the Buccaneers on the Viking five-yard line, and they scored on the next play. Unfortunately, it was the second such call against the Vikings in six days. The other was a dubious clock-stopper in the fading seconds against Denver on Sept. 11, which led to a game-tying field goal for the Broncos, an overtime and—fortunately enough—ultimately, a Minnesota win. That call produced heat and fever from a most unlikely source—that original ice-and-stone sideline statue, Bud Grant.
The Minnesota coach threw such a tantrum on the sidelines that Defensive Tackle Alan Page had to restrain him. And when the game was over, Grant ranted, "And people wonder why we need full-time officials! Well, tonight the whole nation saw it again. They just are not qualified!" Much of Grant's venom was directed at the referee, Don Wedge, who had seven years of experience as a Big Ten official and five more in the NFL but in real life is a sales manager for the Hobart Corporation in Troy, Ohio.
Fumed Grant, "He's not a full-time referee. I'm more qualified than he is, and so are 27 other coaches in the NFL, because we're out there every day on the practice field making judgments. These guys are out there just 16 times a season, so don't tell me that's being qualified." On another occasion Grant had said, "Officials are the only amateurs in this whole sport—everyone else is a pro!"
And then there was the winning three-way touchdown "fumble" perpetrated by Oakland's Ken Stabler, Pete Banaszak and Dave Casper, which led to a last-second Raider win over San Diego on Sept. 10. After the game, all three Raiders admitted that it had been a desperate phony fumble that was tossed and coddled and even kicked so Casper could at last fall on it in the end zone. This admission upset Ray Dodez, the head linesman in that game. Dodez called Tommy Bell, who retired in 1976 after 15 seasons as an NFL referee, for encouragement after the Oakland players boasted about their caper. "I think that [kind of talk] made them look small," Bell told Dodez.
The Chargers protested the call, but the NFL said it was impossible for the officials to judge "intent" on the part of Stabler-Banaszak-Casper Inc. and, the Raiders' confession notwithstanding, the decision was the right one at the time it was made. "I wish they had told the officials then," Pete Rozelle facetiously remarked the following Sunday. "It would have saved a lot of time." He also said he would look into the possibility of instituting a "court of appeals" to settle disputes over controversial plays that affect the outcome of games.
After hearing about the San Diego complaint, Oakland Coach John Madden shrugged and said, "The league office gets complaints—or if you prefer, protests—every week on officiating. Heck, the only gratification you get out of protesting Monday about officials making bad calls against you is that the league will tell you on Tuesday that you were right. That's it."