"Mommas, don't let your babies grow up to be NFL officials." Willie and Waylon, revised
For weeks, months even, nearly the entire National Football League season in fact, the stripe-shirted justices had seemed especially wise and alert. Frequently, no doubt on command from Pete Rozelle, they literally had blown the whistle on the sort of unnecessary, injury-inducing hits that had gone unpenalized far too long.
Come the playoffs and much of pro football -- fans, players and coaches -- is on its annual zebra hunt.
In three of the four semifinal conference playoffs, officials made important calls that were wrong, though the outcome of the games was not seriously influenced. In the AFC title game Sunday, side judge Donald Orr seemed to freeze on a call that denied the Houston Oilers a touchdown. They settled for a field goal.
Neutral watchers, if such creatures exist in a sport filled with deep loyalties and point spreads, insist the Steelers probably would have won the game regardless of whether Mike Renfro had the ball firmly in his hands when his feet landed in the end zone.
Still, the dizzy outrage has intensified. The wailing and gnashing of teeth preoccupies more than Houston. Some Walter Fauntroy type will dash off a letter demanding that Congress investigate the NFL. One usually clear-witted Texan I know said a few hours after the Steeler-Oiler game that he would like to knee each of the officials in a vulnerable spot.
He was serious.
What to do?
Television replays have exposed too many wrong decisions for the league not to seriously consider making television replays part of the on-the-field decision making process. While idly thumbing through an airline magazine on the way home from Pittsburgh, I discovered Rozelle himself agrees.
". . .Though we have experimented with instant replay as a means to aid officiating and found it difficult," he said Northwest Airlines as part of a what-I-see-for-the-'80s pitch, "the use of some type of electronic device would seem logical in another 10 years.
"However, I do not think that the game as we know it will ever be totally devoid of controversy in respect to on-the-field judgments, because professional football is a game of high drama and passion played by humans and will still require supervision by humans."
The second most revealing sequence of pictures of the Mike Renfro play would be of pooor Orr before, during and after the pivotal moment. Apparently, he committed a sin almost as bad as being wrong. He was indecisive.
If there is an official's prayer, it surely includes, "Lord, if I'm not right, please make me look right. And at least let me seem as though I'm in control of everything."
Correctly, the NFL has men such as you and me preside over its games, more experienced in such matters but, as Willie and Waylon would put it, doctors and lawyers and such.
Most of the time they are excellent. Most of the time they work as a team, one official reversing a call if he had the superior angle.
Orr, the side judge, had a fine angle on the play. In an instant, though, a wink, his eyes had to focus on two spots. He had to look at the ground, to see if Renfro had in fact kept that dragging left foot inbounds, and then chest-high, to see if he had possession.
Fans reasonably close to the play said Orr's face took on the starry-eyed look of a man whose mind suddenly went blank, whose immediate thoughts were not "touchdown" or incomplete" but "HELP."
And none of his colleagues had the proper angle to offer an opinion. After a conference, it was judged that Orr thought Renfro did not have possession when foot feet hit the end zone -- and the Oilers came up dry.
Not 50 yards away, behind the Steeler bench, was a large television monitor. Presumably, the Steelers dashed in front of it to watch the replays with everyone but the paving customers. Terry Bradshaw and some others were firm in their postgame opinions that Orr erred.
They were more convinced that I. This was one of those times when the replays, or the ones instantly available, were not totally conclusive. I'm convinced Renfro had both feet inbounds; the angle was bad enough to encourage doubt about possession.
But Orr's hesitation, human though it was, encourages the notion that the committee arrived at the most convenient way to rule incompletion.
Probably, the Oilers will have film they believe will justify a touchdown; undoubtedly, the Steelers will have film that shows Houston guilty of penalties that went undetected. They delight incalling themselves "the most-apologized-to team in the league."
The Steelers have completed a cycle of apparently bad calls at crucial points of crucial games. They benefited from a pass-interference decision in the last Super Bowl that the league later admitted was wrong.
They were on the frustrated end of a wrong call on an onside kick during the next-to-last game of the regular season, against Houston, a loss that could have cost them the home-field advantage in the AFC title game had the Oilers not upset San Diego.
All along, the argument here has been not to create some elaborate, unimaginably expensive system of sophisticated replay equipment in every league stadium, as the NFL once considered.
But there is a splendid appellate tool -- television -- already available. Why not use it? Granted, an official's error is as much a part of each game as a halfback's fumble and a coach's game-plan idiocy.
Reasonably persons can accept that. But football people are not reasonable. Theirs is a high-risk business; their fate is uncertain enough without being jeopardized by a decision everyone can see is wrong.
Why not use the television replays on hand? Possibly, this will call for some official person to monitor the monitors and phone the referee during times of doubt, or obvious error.
Possibly, each team should have a representative watching the monitors. Every one of them. Whatever is available can be used as evidence. A seemingly obscure hold as well as a clear fumble.
A specified number of appeals could be used, like timeouts. Perhaps two per team per game, with penalties for bothering the officials when the replays leave them convinced they were right.
Something ought to be done, perhaps a preseason experiment at least to begin the new decade. Rozelle spends too much of his time writing I'm sorry notes.