Let's Go to the Tape

A rash of referee blunders in NFL games has fans pleading for a review of key calls by instant replay

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Famine, disease, wrongful prosecution. The injustices of the world are many, but there may be none more dreaded or debated than a blown call late in a National Football League game. Coaches and players foam; league officials squirm; and frazzled fans dial the personality-disorder hotline called sports talk radio. Pro football, which made violence a Sunday virtue and Vegas the national bank, is the beast in all of us.

So let's kill the refs.

When three blatant officiating blunders led to losses for the Seattle Seahawks, Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers in recent weeks, the whole playoff picture was torn from its frame. The NFL politburo announced that instant replay, in use from 1986 to 1991, may be revived for the playoffs.

Initial support gave way to caution, though, and to doubts about whether to even put it to a vote among team owners this week. Some owners fretted about game delays (as if officials don't already huddle like zebras at a watering hole); technological complexities; and when to allow challenges, by whom and how often.

Legitimate concerns, but guess what, guys? Air-traffic control is complicated. So is gene splicing. But reviewing a 5-yd. run on instant replay? Is there any good reason, with a game on the line, a season on the line, maybe the Super Bowl on the line, that everyone but the referees should have the benefit of technology that's roughly 35 years old?

Here's a thought: every dope in the world has got a cell phone. Give one to the ref, and have someone sitting in front of a TV call and overrule him when he blows it. Just do it on obvious blunders for now, and work out a better system in the off-season.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello objects that "people can disagree about what's obvious." True enough. So let's set a standard. Let's use the end of the Jets-Seahawks game Dec. 6 at New Jersey's Meadowlands, seconds dying, Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde knifing for the goal line with the ball. Jimmy Hoffa might be somewhere in that end zone, but Testaverde was a crowbar short. Yet the Jets were given the touchdown that might have knocked Seattle out of the playoffs. "It's nonsense to say 'Let's wait,'" says Fox-TV analyst Tim Green, a former defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons. "That play could end up costing [Seattle coach] Dennis Erickson his job."

Green is a man whose only apparent touchdown in an eight-year career was called back after an instant replay. But not only does he also want the replay back and want it now, he wants the league to get to work on a laser-detection system to determine whether a ball crosses the goal line or a ball carrier steps on the sideline.

Several owners remain philosophically opposed to any nonhuman intrusion on the dignity of the game, which is essentially a blood sport. But a random sampling of teams suggests replay will get a thorough review in the off-season, as will oft debated questions such as whether officials should be full-time professionals rather than weekend warriors with day jobs.

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