“At a time when the league and sport is trying to do all that it can to get the calls right, there’s more controversy than there’s ever been before. I’ve never been a fan of instant replay,” he told Jimmy Traina on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast.
“I didn’t like it when I was playing and I didn’t like it when it returned when the votes were made years ago to make instant replay part of our game,” Aikman said. “I just think that for the most part, the officials were doing a good job. There were times when I was impacted by the wrong calls and there were times I benefited from the wrong calls. I think over time, it evens itself out.”
The first experiment with instant replay came in 1976; by 1986, it was being used in regular season games. It “gives us a better chance to walk off the field error-free,” Art McNally, then the supervisor of NFL officials, said at the time. But the officiating complaints haven’t gone away.
“I like what Bill Parcells said back at the time. If we can get all the calls right all the time, then he was in favor of it, but if we can’t, then he was not,” Aikman said. “Now we’re reviewing pass interference. That’s only complicated things from the fan’s perspective. ‘Okay, well, why isn’t that pass interference? Why isn’t that called?’ It’s put these officials in a really tough position. They’re gun shy, to be quite honest with you. The scrutiny has never been as intense as it is right now.
“I don’t know how they correct it because I think in a lot of ways it’s hard to go backward. Instant replay is definitely a part of our game. I don’t think we can ever just not have that. But we keep adding things to it. In addition to that, we keep adding player safety rules, which I’m all for player safety, but it’s hard. It’s become really hard to call a game. I’m sure it’s maddening to watch a game with all the penalties. It’s rare that a play happens when there isn’t some kind of penalty that’s thrown. It’s nauseating from my perspective, and I don’t think anyone, I don’t think those in the game like it and I certainly don’t think the fans like it.”
Aikman had a front-row seat for the latest controversy Sunday in a Saints-Rams rematch — another game marred by an officiating error. This time, the Saints lost a touchdown when an official blew the whistle in the middle of a fumble return by defensive lineman Cam Jordan instead of allowing the play to be completed and using replay to determine whether Rams quarterback Jared Goff had thrown an incompletion or fumbled. That meant that replay could award the Saints only possession of the ball and not a score. Jordan later compared the official to a Foot Locker employee. That was the second time this season the Saints have been left shaking their heads; after their Week 1 win, the league admitted that a mistake cost the team 15 seconds after an improper clock runoff.
“Why are there errors? It appears to me that many officials are working using their own personal perspective of what is or is not a foul for pass interference, holding, roughing the passer, etc., which has led to inconsistencies from game to game,” Terry McAulay, a former NFL referee who is a rules analyst for NBC, wrote The Washington Post’s Mark Maske via email. “They seem to lack clearly identifiable standards for these very subjective fouls.”
According to NFLpenalties.com, 622 flags were thrown over the season’s first two weeks, an average of 9.72 per team per game. Last season, that average was 7.88; in 2009, it was 6.93. Compounding the problem is the time it takes to sort out each penalty. Aikman figures to see a lot of flags Thursday night, when he and Joe Buck broadcast the game on NFL Network between the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the NFL’s more frequently flagged teams. As a broadcaster, Aikman is just as bothered as fans by the frequent interruptions.
“What I mean is, the volume of penalties, it just ruins the flow of a game. It ruins the flow of a broadcast. Every single time after a play when you’re starting to talk about something, then you got to stop and everything comes to a halt because you got to hear what the officials are calling, what the penalty is and how it’s being administered,” he said. “There are very few games where I’m not just totally, I guess, disturbed, is the right way to say it, with the number of penalties that come out.”
The league’s focus during the offseason was using replay to avoid a recurrence of the NFC championship game pass interference disaster. The issues this season have been across the board, and in a contact sport like the NFL, there’s simply no way to remove the human element. There have been other complaints, too; Raekwon McMillan of the Miami Dolphins claimed this week that, after a legal hit on Tom Brady, a referee told him, “Stay off Tom,” an example of how rules and their interpretation can change when it comes to protecting quarterbacks.
“For me, it goes back to the play in January, and then we spent eight months talking about instant replay,” said John Parry, the Super Bowl LIII referee who is now a rules analyst for ESPN, told Maske. “Instant replay, to me, is a Band-Aid. It can’t be the fix for officiating.”