Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Replay camera not always reliable

        Upon further review, replay officiating still stinks. It's always intrusive, too often inconclusive and sometimes simply incorrect. It's what you get when you try to organize bedlam. It's common sense by committee — that is to say, senseless.

        The New England Patriots survive in the NFL playoffs because a fumble suspected of being an incomplete pass was found instead to be a “tuck” — a heretofore underappreciated move that affords a quarterback roughly the same immunity as a set of diplomatic license plates.

        With 1:43 remaining in regulation Saturday afternoon, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had the ball knocked from his grip after he decid
ed against throwing it. He was bringing the ball back to his belly when it was dislodged by Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson.

        That's a fumble in my book as it was in Pop Warner's book. If it is not a fumble in the NFL manual, it is because the pertinent passage is imprecise and NFL referees lack the discretion to distinguish between literal meaning and intent.

System is flawed

        In attempting to legislate every possible action and in providing veto power to video, the NFL has replaced the judgment of referees with something less subjective but equally flawed. The league seeks the absolute, but it continues to deliver the arbitrary.

        “Officiating is fallible no matter what you do,” Bengals owner Mike Brown said Tuesday. “My father used to say (about instant replay), "They just added another layer of error.' ... I'm going to be hard to convince that the game is improved.”

        Noted Neanderthal that he is, Brown can be counted on to oppose technofootball. This is a man, after all, philosophically opposed to air conditioning.

        Yet Brown's reflexive objections to replay officiating have proven right. It does disrupt the flow of a game. It does not always provide indisputable evidence, and it does not correct enough mistakes to justify its tedious delays. Even when the evidence is clear, the officials are still capable of egregious errors.

        In ruling Brady's fumble an incomplete pass, referee Walt Coleman invoked Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, Note 2 of the NFL rule book: "... any intentional forward movement of (the passer's) arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body.”

Game "should be like life'

       & Brady did not “lose possession” of the ball unilaterally. He was separated from the ball by the force of Woodson's hit. The ball hit the ground by aggression, not accident.

        The rule as written does not adequately account for the action of the defensive player, and enforcing it leaves a referee little latitude. Coleman elected to make a narrow, literal interpretation rather than apply real-life logic.

        Result: Injustice.

        Stuff happens. The usually brilliant Brett Favre threw six interceptions Sunday. An injection intended to numb Jerome Bettis' injured groin instead immobilized him. Human error afflicts us all, officials included.

        “It's a game,” Mike Brown said. “It's like life. It should mirror life. You shouldn't take time out to roll it back in slow motion.”

        The camera may not lie, but neither can it tell the whole truth. So long as that's the case, human beings should suffice.

        E-mail Past columns at


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