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."
October 8, 1978
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."
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 à 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."
It is likely that the idea of full-time officials (as baseball, basketball and hockey have) will be discussed at the owners' March meetings. Rozelle is open-minded but skeptical. "The economics aren't really a problem," he says. "The league is in better shape that way than ever. Our annual budget for officiating is approximately $2 million. Full-time officials would double or triple that. The major problem with going full time is that we would lose many of our best men. All of them have other jobs, and only a few would want to give them up, I'm afraid, for full-time officiating. Beyond that, I don't know how much better they'd be. You could train them over and over, every day, every week, and certainly you would eliminate some mistakes and maybe develop their reflexes. But how do you train a guy to see over a 250-pound man? I'm not sure you could ever train them out of all mistakes. Football players train all week long. And they make mistakes."
Still, some of the best minds in football, including Bud Grant, Al Davis and Dallas Cowboy General Manager Tex Schramm, argue that only more intensive recruiting, tougher training in camps with the teams, better conditioning, perhaps even a year-round University of Referees—a permanent training facility—can bring the kind of quantum improvements necessary in NFL officiating. Tommy Bell argues that the present system is about as foolproof as it can be. However, he also thinks a couple of rules ought to be changed to help officials—and also protect the quarterbacks. "If the passer drops back in the pocket," Bell says, "he should be given the same protection as a punter. And they ought to change the intentional-grounding rule. So many quarterbacks hold on to the ball to keep from getting a 10-yard penalty, and they get hurt. Let them dump it with a loss of down but no yardage."
There are 100 officials in the NFL today. "Most of them are in sales or education," McNally says, "and they average 48 years of age, with 24 years or so of officiating experience. No man can work in the NFL with less than 10 years of experience. Oh, we wouldn't insist on that much if some ex-players offered to officiate, but they just don't seem to want to. We have seven former players. I think most people feel it's a comedown to be a player, then have to go back to officiating high school or college games before they can work the NFL. We get about 120 applications each season, and we test them, interview them, grade them—and we hire about six. This year we have 16 new men because of the new seventh official." McNally says that not one of the disputed calls this season has been made by a new official.
At the beginning of the season, each official must take a 175-question, open rule-book examination. Each week during the season, the officials take additional written tests. They are expected to be in good condition and to take a physical and an eye test before the season. But the only way their condition is tested by the NFL office after that is by the monitoring of their weight twice a year. As for disciplinary action after a blown call: perhaps a reprimand by phone from McNally or, at worst, the loss of game assignments. No angry commissioner's fines such as players, coaches and owners sometimes draw? "Not working a game or two works as a fine in itself," says Rozelle.
Depending on seniority, officials are paid from $325 to $800 for a regular-season game, more for postseason contests—up to $3,000 for the Super Bowl. A veteran who worked every possible game at top scale would receive $23,000 a year. Besides the actual officiating of the game, the job calls for each team of officials (they become part of a permanent crew after the second preseason game) to arrive in the game city on Saturday afternoon. They then spend about three hours in a skull session, reviewing films and going over critique sheets (based on extensive critical scrutiny of films by McNally and his staff) of the game they worked the week before. On Sunday morning they meet to discuss the specific characteristics and strategies of the teams in the game they will officiate. "Always the discussion has to be positive," says McNally. "I will not abide negative comments—such as saying So-and-so holds a lot, watch for it, or Such-and-such had four penalties for being offside last week. I jump right down their throats if I hear that they discuss players negatively."
At the game itself, the officials' work is under scrutiny by special NFL full-field-coverage cameras, as well as by network cameras. Not only are they graded by an on-site observer and, on Monday, by McNally's film critics, but they also get ratings and complaints (or praise) from the coach of each team.
So why is the nation in the throes of zebra flu? Why has Bud Grant's stone face gone molten? Has the whole system broken down for good? No, probably not. But neither is there a cure-all for this malady that is in the autumn air; it came with the franchise. To err is human, to forgive is divine, but to complain about officiating is football—now, then and forever.