On Hochuli, NFL Drops The Ball

Ed Hochuli has been personally answering e-mails about his blown call in Sunday's Chargers-Broncos game.
Ed Hochuli has been personally answering e-mails about his blown call in Sunday's Chargers-Broncos game. (By Chris O'meara -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, September 19, 2008

Let's get something straight right off the bat: Ed Hochuli didn't fail the NFL when he blew that call Sunday; the league failed him.

Of course, that didn't stop folks from bombarding the referee with critical e-mails this week, some of them hateful and threatening.

But Hochuli did something I doubt most NFL players or coaches would do:

He answered the e-mails personally. He didn't forward them to his bosses in New York. He didn't hide behind a professional spinmeister, didn't look to hire a spokesperson, didn't issue a terse "no comment" or try to pass the blame off on somebody else. Hochuli, in what has to have been his most difficult and perhaps even humiliating public moment, acted in as sportsmanlike a manner as is humanly possible.

He owned up to his mistake. He did it once when he walked over to Chargers Coach Norv Turner immediately after ruling an incompletion on what should have been a fumble. And he owned up repeatedly with e-mailers who hammered him, beginning Sunday night and lasting into the week. The San Diego Union-Tribune obtained copies of some of Hochuli's responses and quote the referee as writing back: "I'm getting hundreds of e-mails -- hate mail -- but I'm responding to it all. People deserve a response. You can rest assured that nothing anyone can say can make me feel worse than I already feel about my mistake on the fumble play. You have no idea. . . . Affecting the outcome of a game is a devastating feeling.

"Officials strive for perfection -- I failed miserably. Although it does no good to say it, I am very, very sorry."

It's difficult to remember anybody involved in professional sports being more accountable for a mistake in recent years. Immediately after the game, Hochuli told his bosses in New York he knew he blew the call even before he saw the replay. And if you're the Chargers, with that call making the difference between 1-1 and 0-2, no apology is sufficient. Careers, reputations and contracts are all on the line with every loss in professional football.

But the anger is misdirected if it's aimed at Hochuli. It's the NFL who owes the Chargers an apology. If the NFL had done its job properly, Hochuli simply could have admitted he made the wrong call and turned it over to the replay system, which should have awarded possession to the Chargers, and the game, already in the final seconds, would have been San Diego's.

Hochuli didn't make an egregious error. He didn't misinterpret a rule or apply it incorrectly. He made an error in judgment in a split second.

It happens every week, and it happens during a season to every single official in the league. It happens in every sport, to basketball refs, to umpires. Replay, in the case of the NFL, is there to be Hochuli's safety net. Except that the NFL powers chose to make an exception of quarterbacks being involved in such a play. Had that been a running back and not a quarterback, possession would have been awarded, by the replay booth, to the Chargers.

This is Hochuli's fault?

No, it's the NFL's fault. The rule should be changed instantly, but it won't be because the league will say the competition committee and a rules committee will have to study what happened, meet at the league's winter meetings in March, and come back with a recommendation, blah, blah, blah.

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