The New York Jets get a winning touchdown when an insurance company vice president rules that quarterback Vinny Testaverde crossed the goal line late in the fourth quarter. Wrong.
The New England Patriots steal a victory from the Buffalo Bills after a computer scientist calls pass interference in the end zone. Dubious.
The Detroit Lions defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime when a federal civil servant can't make heads or tails of a coin flip. Bizarre.
Is this any way to run a billion-dollar business?
The string of bad calls that has stained the NFL in recent weeks has revived the lingering debate over the use of part-timers as officials and sparked demands for the return of instant replay officiating.
It also has cast a spotlight on the 5process that goes to the core of the league's integrity--the way the NFL recruits, hires, grades, rewards and punishes its officials.
The best work the Super Bowl.
The worst? They get fired. Quietly.
The bottom line: "If you think it's fair, keep the flag in your pocket," said Bama Glass, a former line judge who worked the 1986 Super Bowl and retired in 1995 after 16 years in the league. "If you know it's fair, always throw your flag."
By definition, such judgment calls are always susceptible to human error. And, of course, nobody's perfect.
The NFL does not, could not, demand perfection. It does, however, demand consistency at a level that, frankly, is staggering--and, in the big picture, that's what it gets.
Out of, on average, 156 plays and 14 penalty calls a game, the league has determined that its officials make three, sometimes four, mistakes.
Each play in every game is videotaped from several angles, then reviewed at league headquarters in New York by Jerry Seeman, the NFL's senior director of officiating, and a staff of full-time supervisors and retired game officials.
Each NFL coach can file a weekly game report and question officials' calls.
The reviews go on for three days. The tapes are broken down frame by frame:
Was there a penalty? Was it called? Should it have been called? Was it called correctly? Was there a non-call that should have been a call?
Officials are graded on judgment and mechanics. Judgment means, did he make the right call? Mechanics means, was he in the right position?
Each call is graded on a scale of one to seven, former officials said. A current official--speaking anonymously, saying the NFL would not let him be interviewed during the season--confirmed the process.
Apparently because of the string of botched calls in recent weeks, the league declined to make Seeman and his staff available for interviews. Also not available was George Young, the NFL's senior vice president of football operations.
"Seven is a great call, great mechanics," said Jim Tunney, who retired after the 1991 season, his 31st as an NFL official. "Six is good. There are lots of fours and fives.
"You get a one or two or three, you really kicked it, you made a bad call.
"Nobody wants a down grade, a one, two, three. The more of those you have, the less chance you have of getting playoff assignments."
The 10 highest-rated officials at each position with at least one previous year of NFL experience qualify for playoff assignments. Super Bowl assignments go to the highest-rated officials at each position with five years of NFL experience.
The Super Bowl referee--the referee operates as the crew chief--must have at least five years' experience as an NFL referee.
Each year, eight or so officials retire--or get cut.
"One call is not going to get you bounced out of the league," Tunney said. "One bad year is not going to get you out."
But, he said, "If you're not measuring up time and time again, you're out."
Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, put it this way: "The point is, [officials] are held accountable, like everyone else in the NFL. If they're not performing, we'll find somebody else."
Who in his right mind would willingly volunteer for such scrutiny and aggravation? Who wants to risk the public humiliation of being identified as the source of a blown call that's replayed endlessly on big-screen TVs from coast to coast?
Who, in essence, wants to be the next Earnie Frantz, the head linesman who blew the Testaverde call on Dec. 6? Or Terry McAulay, the side judge in the Nov. 29 New England-Buffalo game? Or Phil Luckett, the referee in the Thanksgiving coin toss?
The answer: scores of driven, overachieving, Type A personalities--many of them successful professionals and executives--who simply can't get football out of their blood.
The NFL's 1998 roster of 113 officials includes, among others, attorneys, bankers, real estate executives, two dentists and one podiatrist. Only three of the 113 played pro football.
Each year, Seeman's department, searching for replacements for the retiring and the fired, scouts about 180 college officials.