Going Ape Over Tape

The NFL's new replay system isn't working right, and, even worse, it has the field officials hearing rewinds
October 19, 1986

The people who pushed hard for the National Football League's replay mechanism are squirming in their seats. The guys who fought against it are saying, "We told you so." There has been talk that the clubs would rise up like an angry mob at this week's league meetings in Chicago and put an end to the replay—before the baby's even out of its diapers, for goodness' sake.

The league office counters the critics, claiming that in six weeks and 84 games there've been only two screwups—"glitches" they're called—and they didn't result from any mechanical error. In the Pittsburgh-Denver game—in which the Broncos lost a touchdown—there was so much confusion over the original call made by the on-field officials that the replay officials did not get into the act on time. In the Kansas City-L.A. Raiders game—in which the Raiders got a touchdown—the message "pass incomplete" was interpreted as "pass is complete." Human error. Happens all the time. So what else is new?

But here's the rub: It's the wrong humans who are involved. The replay officials, the guys in the booth who have to make the crucial decisions, are old-timers for the most part, referees who have been retired to the league office, put out to pasture. Their average length of NFL service is 24 years. A second member of the replay team is the "communicator," another league office type. O.K., we'll accept the communicators—they're merely facilitators who have to press the right buttons—but a replay official is a man who has only three or four seconds to react. The replay booth is a place for young eager officials on the rise, not retirees, no matter how good they once were.

Each member of the NFL officiating power structure—supervisor of officials Art McNally and his four assistant supervisors—is a replay official. Seven more men on the replay roster of 16 were NFL officiating "observers," some of them for as long as nine years. An observer, well...observes. Then he goes back to the office and writes a report. There's no immediate pressure, no bang-bang decision that has to be made right away, the kind of call an official down on the field constantly has to be ready for in the three long hours of action. Giving a former observer an officiating job is like taking an airline vice-president and sticking him in the cockpit on a stormy night. You're looking for trouble.

•Denver vs. Pittsburgh, Monday night, Sept. 15. John Elway pitches to halfback Gerald Willhite, a good two yards behind Elway, who throws a long touchdown pass to Steve Watson. No TD is the call. Why? Because the original pass went forward, according to the field official. Whoa, baby. Bad call, exactly the sort of thing the replay system is supposed to correct. ABC shows the replay. All of us at home know it's a bad call. Still nothing from the replay officials, zip.

On the sidelines, Denver coach Dan Reeves is badly confused. "They told me the call was correct and there would be no replay," he says. "If I had to do it all over again, I'd have wasted a timeout and started bitching about it, but everything happened so fast...and then we ran another play." That killed it. You can't go to the replay once another play has been run.

The replay official for the Denver game was Paul Trepinski, for 16 years an NFL umpire and for the last three years an observer.

•Raiders vs. Chiefs, Oct. 5. The Raiders' Marc Wilson hits Dokie Williams on a 12-yard fade pattern in the right corner of the end zone. One foot in, one foot out. The sideline official signals touchdown. Another bad call. In the booth, Jack Reader, the replay official, tells communicator Rusty Hawley to "hit the button," which Hawley does, alerting John Keck, the umpire on the field, that a replay is coming. Reader looks at the tape. No catch. One foot out. Reader gets on the walkie-talkie and tells Keck, "Pass incomplete." Keck hears, "Pass is complete." The touchdown stands.

O.K., it's a human error. Keck heard it wrong. But where was Reader when the touchdown signal was given—and they lined up for the extra point? That's the time someone should have hit the button again and said, "Hey, it's no touchdown, it was INcomplete, get it?" Reader was a respected referee and back judge for 15 years. But for the last 18 he has worked out of the league office as an assistant supervisor of officials.

"I'd rather take my chances with the seven guys in the pit," says Giants general manager George Young, referring to the seven officials on the field. "The guys with the thick skins and strong stomachs. I don't want to see the league office as part of the officiating crew."

The Raiders-K.C. incident caused the league to change its code words. Now the replay official must use one of the following terms: reversal, confirmed or inconclusive. No way anyone can get those words mixed up. He'll even repeat it twice. Give them credit for trying.

For all the uproar—teams that used to be in favor of replays have reversed their fields, TV commentators have turned vehemently against it—little is likely to change at mid-season. Young predicted that the owners would not vote to throw out the replay this year.

"I don't like it," he said, "but I certainly wouldn't be the one to stand up and say, 'Throw it out.' No one has called me about it, and I'm not calling anybody."

There's a more subtle problem at work, though, and that's the effect the replay setup has had on officials on the field. They're working scared. They're looking over their shoulders toward the booth. In the first week of the season a ball bounced free in the Chicago end zone in the Bears-Browns game. It looked as if Cleveland had recovered it, but you couldn't be sure. Ben Dreith, one of the tough-guy referees, made no call. He was paralyzed.

Bob Frederic worked the Raiders-Chiefs game. Another strong official. But on the opening kickoff of that game, the return was fumbled—or maybe it wasn't. There was no call made until the replay was consulted. Paralysis. And in the big fight that broke out in the second quarter, Frederic's crew lost it completely. They threw out the Raiders' Vann McElroy. They penalized Howie Long. They never did catch up to Greg Townsend, whose conduct was so unsportsmanlike that the league office, pending a film review, is considering suspending him. And in the Giants-Saints game the previous week, on the Giants' drive at the end, Frederic signaled, "fourth down, no measurement." It was only the needling of Giants coach Bill Parcells that forced officials to measure the thing. And it was a first down, by half a ball length. That could have meant the game.

It's sad to see good officials come apart, and that's the subtle effect the tattletale of the tape is having. The league office has entered an area it has no place being—the arena itself. According to a CBS poll two weeks ago, fans still support the replay concept, but I think it's more out of embarrassment than anything else. The fans were the ones who screamed for it in the first place; they can't really turn their backs on it so soon.

If we have to live with the replay, let's do it right. Put working officials in the booth, get the field officials tuned in to the system and maybe it will work. Right now it's making everyone unhappy.

PHOTORICH SUGG/KANSAS CITY TIMESWilliams got a freebie TD (left) when officials (above) misheard a word from on high. PHOTOHANK YOUNG[See caption above.] PHOTOJAMES DRAKEReader called the play right but was misunderstood.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)