TAMPA, JAN. 25 -- Buffalo Bills Coach Marv Levy was asked for an educated opinion on the use of instant replay this season and the Harvard man with a master's degree in English history clearly articulated his version of a worst-case football scenario at the Super Bowl Sunday night.

"I hope it doesn't happen," Levy said, "but I can see a Super Bowl where you play the whole game and it comes down to the final play and the guy in the {replay} booth runs it over and over and over to decide who wins the game.

"I would rather see it eliminated. For every wrong it cures, you get two others it doesn't address."

Levy doesn't like instant replay in its current form. New York Giants Coach Bill Parcells said, "I'm for anything that helps the officials," but he added that the Giants had voted against it every time and that was fine with him.

George Young, the Giants' general manager, said he believes officials have become timid with their whistles, for fear of being overruled and made to look like blithering idiots by the man upstairs in the replay booth.

And yet, when NFL owners gather in Hawaii in March for their annual meetings, instant replay seems likely to pass once again, with more tinkering to refine a process that has been used with varying success over the last five years.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue firmly believes in it, and said so again at his state-of-the-league news conference this morning.

"Needless to say, in a lot of games it made an important contribution," he said, adding that he would meet with an eight-man coaching committee next month to talk about all aspects of officiating.

Art McNally, the league supervisor of officials who will retire after this season, vehemently opposed the use of television replays in its very early stages. Now, he said: "It's good for the game; I have no hesitation in saying that. In Washington, you know better than anyone. Look what happened on that Byner play against the Eagles."

In fact, Earnest Byner's non-fumble caused by the ground and a reversal of a Philadelphia touchdown in the Redskins' playoff victory over the Eagles earlier this month already is being ballyhooed as the best evidence for perpetuating a system that has drawn criticism from coaches, players, television announcers and fans across the country since its inception in 1986.

Tagliabue said, "Everyone agrees it was the picture perfect application."

"The reversal of that fumble was the most important turnaround we've ever had," McNally said. "I shudder to think if we didn't have instant replay what the reaction would have been. Instead of a fumble and a Philly touchdown, we got the absolute right call made. No one could disagree on it. It was the essence of why replay was created in the first place."

In fact, McNally credited Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs for helping convince doubters that replay could work, if used in certain phases of the game: "He was the first one to say, 'Hey, why don't we use it on sideline plays, catches in the end zone? Don't monkey around with fouls and penalties.' "

McNally and other league officials also are quick to point out that the system still has many flaws, but that it has been improved every year. And every year refinements are made to cut down on the major complaints: that replay takes too much time, that it is used on marginally important plays and interrupts the flow of play, can often kill a team's momentum and makes officials too cautious, for fear of being upstaged upstairs.

The league has its own complaints, mainly involving what it perceives as misconceptions about the system among fans and the media.

"No one calls for a replay from the bench," said Val Pinchbeck, the NFL's vice president for broadcasting and productions. "That's a very big misconception. Another one is that teams will call a time out to get a replay, or that they'll hurry up and get a play off so we can't look. That's just not the case. If the play is close, it is the job of the replay official to stop play. That's basically how it works in a nutshell. The replay official then has a two-minute time limit to make a decision. Yes, there have been some glitches, we don't deny that. But every year, we're getting better at it."

The first year the system was used, in 1986, a total of 374 plays were reviewed, with 38 reversals. This past season, not counting the playoffs, 504 plays were reviewed, with 73 reversals. The league also reported that the average time for review of each play had improved since 1986, although the average delay this season was one minute 37 seconds once the decision was made to review, three seconds longer than the 1:34 of a year ago. There have been some embarrassingly long delays, usually caused by botched communication between the men on the field and the man in the booth.

Theoretically, the system is supposed to work like this: The replay official watches the game action on one of two monitors, then immediately determines if further study is necessary. He is watching the live network feed, but the replay official does not hear the television commentators, nor is he in touch with network people as to which plays to show or not to show.

If he decides the play should be reviewed, he contacts the umpire to stop play. According to the explanation of the process in the league's media guide: "The system will be used to correct an indisputable error. The system will be used to reverse an on-field decision only when the replay official has indisputable visual evidence available to him that warrants the change."

The system is designed to concentrate on "plays of possession or touching {fumbles, receptions, interceptions, muffs} and most plays governed by the sidelines, goal lines, end lines and line of scrimmage {receiver or runner in or out of bounds, forward or backward passes, breaking the plane of the goal line}. It also will be used to determine whether there are more than 11 men on the field."

Replay is not used to review a list of 26 fouls and penalties, because "it is recognized that in most circumstances the on-field officials have the best vantage points involving fouls," according to the media guide.

Still, there are scads of complaints. Two weeks ago in a playoff game against the Chicago Bears, the Giants' Stephen Baker caught a pass and was clearly in the end zone. As Baker turned to celebrate, he heard the dreaded words "the play is under review."

"I heard that and said, 'Oh no,' I just couldn't believe it," Baker said the other day. "I knew I had two feet in, and the official was right there with me. I saw him and he was in perfect position to make the call. He looked very confident. The way I feel, just let the guy make the call, nine out of 10 they're right anyway, and that's okay with me. It's just such a waste of time, and, if you're on a roll and they stop it, that really does affect a team."

"I think most players do hate it," said Eric Dorsey, the Giants' veteran defensive lineman. "It takes away the thrill; it's like taking a piece of candy away from a kid. I'm not a big proponent of it. I've seen a lot of plays where things should have been changed and they weren't. You see stuff like that and you just say to yourself, 'Why bother?' "

Added Dan Dierdorf, an ABC analyst and former all-pro offensive lineman: "I'd prefer for them to do away with it. I don't like the way it interferes with the flow of the game. It's pure in its intent to right a wrong, but I thought things flowed nicely without it."

Still, the league is firmly committed to the program. Don Weiss, the NFL's director of planning, said he would like to see the owners make replay permanent, rather than renewing it every year.

"A lot of us feel if it was permanent there would be many things we could do to improve the conditions," Weiss said. "We'd have better booths, more vantage points, permanent facilities in every stadium, with the same equipment. We're already getting better people to do it; now it's just a matter of them getting more experience with it. There is no question it's gotten better each year."

Dan Rooney, the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, voted against replay in its early stages, but has now been convinced that the system can work. Still, he does have some reservations.

"I've seen good and I've seen bad," he said. "The league still has to get a handle on the way it works, and it may have some effect on the officials down on the field. You can almost hear them saying, 'If we call it this way on the field, what are they going to do up there?' They are also looking to instant replay to make the decision for them. They'll say no, but I think that does go on.

"At this point, though, people have gotten so used to it, there is a fear that if we didn't use it television would show a replay of a big play 300 times and talk about what a travesty it is that it couldn't be reversed. . . . I personally could be happy without it, but I think it may be too late to turn back."

The general consensus is that with Tagliabue's heavy lobbying, owners once again will approve the use of instant replay, although as Weiss said, "You never really know until you get in the meeting."

Last year, for example, Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman was on the fence and decided at the last minute to vote for replay in 1990.

Said one league executive, "The Earnest Byner play might just make him vote the other way this year. It's always close."

And as always, subject to further review.