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Commentary : NFL Should Keep the Instant Replay, and Use It Less Often

December 27, 1987|KEN DENLINGER | The Washington Post

I have submitted my feelings on instant replay to instant replay. Like the NFL's version, mine also is not especially swift. After further review, as they say on the field, I believe the system ought to be kept, but severely modified.

In two years, and to the satisfaction of just about everyone except the Washington Redskins' Joe Gibbs, replay has established evidence to support this conclusion: NFL officials are terrific.

About one call in 10 gets reversed, which means these once-a-week arbitors are a whole lot better at covering the field and their assigned players than most full-time defenders.

Still, I continue to think instant replay has merit. If the available television footage indicates a blown call, a correction should be made. Use the eyes with the proper angle on controversial plays, human or mechanical.

I sense lately that instant replay is being overused, if not abused. I sense replay officials are so afraid of missing a call that will bring the wrath of a coach and his narrow-minded community, they review plays that simply aren't worth the time.

Numbers reinforce that notion. In 16 weeks last season, 374 plays were "closely reviewed," meaning there was at least contact with officials on the field. In 13 weeks this season, the tally was a whopping 454, or slightly more than two per game.

The NFL says games have been completed more quickly this year, by an average of 92 seconds to be exact. They argue that better communication more than offsets the increase in reviews.

So how come Monday Night Football keeps drifting 20 minutes or so into Tuesday morning? Or "60 Minutes" becomes 44 minutes in parts of the country each week?

Games still are taking too long, and the reasons seem only indirectly related to football. Television commercials are the primary impediment, replay is next, incomplete passes are a dangerous third.

I say dangerous because a league conscious of public opinion might well cut into its game to shorten the length of its games. Sometime down the line, the clock might keep running after incomplete passes--and fans will be paying more money for less action.

One possibility is to cut replays drastically. Put the burden of using the replay system on the teams instead of the league.

Give each coach access to the system. But at a price. If he wants a replay, let him have it, but at a cost of something like 10 yards or loss of down if the replay official says he's wrong.

One might argue that a coach already has too much on his mind, what with telling his quarterback where to throw the ball or in whose belly to plant it. Or gently reminding nearby officials that the opposition is getting away with bloody murder on each play.

The solution: Place a television monitor in the upstairs booths that house each team's assistant coaches during games. Let these assistants alert their head coach to calls worth challenging.

Assistants are accustomed to watching tape and quickly picking out details that would escape the rest of us, including the fellows used as replay officials.

Most pertinent angles are shown before the next play gets run, anyway. A defensive coach can pay attention to the monitor while his team is on offense, so as not to interrupt the flow of thought to the field. And vice versa after a change of possession.

If Larry Peccatiello seems sure the official who ruled that Gary Clark did not have both feet in bounds on a first-down reception is wrong, he can nudge Dan Henning to tell Gibbs, over the phone, to signal not the next play but time.

If the Redskins are right, justice is served. If not, the referee will announce a more polite version of: "the play stands . . . (penalty) against the Redskins for wasting our time."

Teams would have to be judicious with their replay calls. They would let borderline ticky-tack situations go unreviewed, knowing that officials have been right on 90% of all controversial calls these two years of replay.

An example occurred in the Redskins-Cardinals game two Sundays ago in St. Louis. So certain was the play-by-play typist that the Cardinals were about to pull within seven points with 2:33 left he wrote: "Lomax passes to Mitchell complete for 14-yd. touchdown."

Not yet. Several minutes later summit-watchers translated the replay-review into nyet.

Assume an enlightened league had instituted this proposed replay rule. Knowing that some sort of penalty would be assessed on an onside kickoff if they were wrong, the Redskins might well have been hesitant to demand review of a play that took about several minutes to reverse, anyway.

The leader whose determination brought us replay in the first place, and then saved it after last season, is the Dallas Cowboys' Tex Schramm. This week, he is upset with a replay official for a call that went against his team Sunday in RFK Stadium.

The official, Chuck Heberling, did not know the rules when he reversed an on-the-field call that allowed Washington's Barry Wilburn an interception, Schramm fumed.

Well, Heberling had plenty of company. The great minds in striped shirts who went along with his decision also erred. Schramm sadly guesses that more fuss over replay might cause it to be abandoned during postseason meetings.

Replay came within a vote of being scrapped last year. Schramm said he fears that eighth, and fatal, dissenter may appear, even though a USA Today poll this week indicates much more fan support for replay this year than last.

"It irritates me that people criticize the system for the failure of the individual," he said. "We have a good system, but it depends on good people to operate it."

When it was instituted, I agreed completely with Schramm. I still think the replay system is good, but only in moderation. Tex, 454 times of even a good thing is about 400 too many.

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