Last Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers beat the New York Giants, 39-38, in one of the most exciting comebacks in NFL playoff history. Last Friday, Ohio State upset Miami in double overtime, 31-24, in one of the best national championship games in college history.
These thrillers have much in common, besides making me add two tapes to my greatest hits collection. Both will be remembered for a single controversial call that may have decided the game.
Miami would have won if Glenn Sharpe had not been called for interference in the end zone in the first overtime. For 3.5 seconds, Miami thought it had won its 35th straight game. Then a late flag fluttered onto the field and Ohio State got its famous reprieve.
The Giants would have had one more play, one more chance to kick a 41-yard field goal, with no time left on the clock had a correct pass interference call been made. The NFL has already apologized.
Those games, however, also have one huge difference that the NFL might take into consideration if it wants to improve its sport.
College football is played in real time. If there are no penalty flags, the play is over. If there is a flag, it is sorted out quickly on the field. You can cheer, cry or beat your head on the floor. You can relish your experience because you know it will stand.
We'll never see a better example of why football is at its best in real time, with human error allowed to stand, than Ohio State's victory. Pass interference is not a reviewable play in the NFL. But the point is that continuous action, and quick decisions, even in the face of the occasional dubious call, make for the most exciting sport.
OSU and Miami kept us up past midnight, hair on fire. Can you imagine the same game in the NFL? How many challenges, conferences and instant-replay reviews would have defused the tension?
Ironically, even replay doesn't always leave a sense of simple justice. We're days away from the anniversary of The Great Tuck Rule debate. Last year, the NFL crowned a champion with a Rule 3-Section 21-Article 2 asterisk on it. Now, it's January again and the NFL is obsessing about officiating instead of focusing on those two fabulous come-from-behind games last Sunday.
Even with a championship at stake, the key words are, "It's just a game." If you treat sport as seriously as a weapons-of-mass-destruction inspection, you dampen the fun, the spontaneity and, in a sense, the humanity. The officials are part of the theater. They introduce an element of zebra caprice, like bad bounces and lucky calls. But that's part of sports.
The NFL's problem is not the competence of its refs as much as the league's ingrained sense of self-importance. This week, to save face, the NFL announced that, effective immediately, on all field goal attempts, two officials will stand in a different place and direct their eyes differently so they can "see better."
Oh, give it a rest. What next, a helicopter so an extra official can hover over the line of scrimmage for a better view?
In its pursuit of a spurious perfection, the NFL is played in a kind of suspended animation. A deep fear of mistakes by refs, like Sunday's blunder, has led the sport not only to instant replay, which is bad enough, but to rethink and retool the sport every time somebody gets hopping mad.
This week, in reaction to the Giants' travesty, the NFL added yet another time-consuming, reality-reversing layer to its lugubrious decision-making. Henceforth, on disputed calls at the end of a game, all seven officials will consult on tough decisions, as opposed to only those refs directly involved in the call.
Thanks. Somebody want to get those guys some chips and a six-pack so they can take their time with 0:00 on the clock?
Of course, we may get a red challenge flag on this last point. Any NFL rules "clarification" or procedural alteration usually requires at least one re-clarification. Pro football is the only major sport where every adult in America thinks they know the rules, but, outside the league's Mike Pereira, less than 100 probably do.
The final play of the Giants-49ers game produced an entire 24-hour comedy that was pure NFL. Gradually, over that period, it became clear that TV experts, ex-players and coaches, as well as veteran reporters, had no idea what the central protagonist -- holder Matt Allen -- should have done after fielding a bad snap.
"It was third down. He shoulda spiked it," said the talking heads. Sounded great. I agreed. That Allen, what a goat. Doesn't even know his job.
Except that, of all the possibilities, spiking the ball was the worst choice Allen could have made. It's illegal. A grounding penalty. Ten seconds off the clock. Game over.
What Allen actually did -- throw a long desperate pass -- would have turned out to be the best possible play, if everybody else had done their job. If Giants lineman Tam Hopkins hadn't gone downfield and if officials had correctly called interference on Chike Okeafor for clobbering eligible receiver Rich Seubert, the Giants would have had the ball inside the 5-yard line. The game can't end on a penalty. The Giants would have had a field goal try of extra-point length. Matt Allen, extemporaneous hero, not goat.
A sport can reach a point where it has so many rules -- which are amended so often and then enforced by officials who are repeatedly overturned by replay -- that the game strangles on technicalities, loses its flow and exasperates our patience. This process of putting patches on top of fixes -- like this week's latest NFL addendum to a codicil -- feeds on itself.
College football has kept its game simple, if flawed. As a result its best games are magnificent and the experience unalloyed.
Pro football, with the best intentions, had tried compulsively to improve and perfect itself. Yet the cure is worse than the disease. The NFL's best games, like those on Sunday, are breathtakingly wonderful. Just let them stand on their own. Warts and all.