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.
The NFL should do what's in the best interest of the game, which is change the rule today. I don't want to hear it can't be done because we just saw the NHL, during the Stanley Cup playoffs, amend a rule essentially on the spot in the best interest of the game.
It's plain lazy to say men as smart as the people who run the NFL can't get this right until March. It easily could happen again Sunday and cost a team a game and trigger another avalanche of hateful e-mails. The technology, obviously, is available. The people are there in the replay booth to apply it appropriately. The rule, as it's currently written, contradicts all common sense. But the NFL will sit around until March hoping to dodge another bullet. Too bad the people who vote on and implement the rules don't have the sense or urgency on these matters as Hochuli.
Yet, it's Hochuli's reputation that's taking the hit. The day after he blew the call, the NFL released a statement saying: "Officials are held accountable for their calls. They are graded on every play of every game. Ed has been an outstanding official for many years, but he will be marked down for this call. Under our evaluation system an official's grades impact his status for potentially working the playoffs and ultimately whether or not he is retained."
Retained? Does anybody who has watched professional football over the past 25 years want to question whether Ed Hochuli should be retained?
Everything has context, and Hochuli's body of work is unarguably impressive. Quite possibly, he's the best referee in the NFL. In a recent ESPN poll, head coaches said as much about Hochuli (who finished tied with Mike Carey). After only two years on the field Hochuli was promoted to crew chief. Yes, every official is graded on every call -- by former officials, first individually, then by the group. It's difficult to imagine a more thorough system of evaluation. This one call, which Hochuli realized in an instant was wrong and apologized for immediately, might keep him out of the playoffs? Is somebody better and less fallible going to replace him?
Hochuli played college football at UTEP. He works now as a trial lawyer. He is quoted in USA Today as having said of the pressures involved in his two careers: "A trial is nothing, pressure-wise, compared to the NFL. . . . I have that long [he snaps his fingers] to make a decision with a million people watching and second-guessing [by video] in slow-motion. You've got to be right or wrong. I love the satisfaction when you are right -- and the agony when you are wrong."
It was all agony through the middle of the week. The NFL wanted Hochuli to stop answering the e-mails and text messages. He seems accountable to such a level that only an order from his bosses would stop him from continuing to answer the correspondence. The good news, if there's any in this mess, is that while 90 percent of the e-mails on Sunday night and Monday were negative, a great many were supportive by Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning. Perhaps the people who were e-mailing realized it was unseemly to hold Hochuli or any referee to a standard nobody in any workplace could measure up to: perfection.