Fiction and truth about officiating


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Jan 22, 2006
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Fiction and truth about officiating
Nancy Gay
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Orlando -- The NFL has a bit of a perception problem. The sanctity of the 2005 playoffs and Super Bowl XL were compromised when fans took offense to a glaring number of dubious calls by the league's crew of part-time officials.

The NFL doesn't believe there's a problem. So there.

"We thought the officials had a very good year," the co-chair of the NFL's competition committee, Rich McKay, said last week. "There was no question there were a couple of calls in the playoffs and the Super Bowl that we wish we had back, but, by and large, it was a very good year."

McKay, the Atlanta Falcons' general manager, and the rest of the NFL's competition committee will convene at the league's annual meeting Monday through Wednesday in Orlando to discuss officiating, among other things.

Believe it -- McKay knows you have doubts. And why not?

The NFL Rule Book isn't some secret doctrine. It's available for sale on That sucker is 227 pages thick. And it's the abridged version, for Pete's sake.

So it's no wonder fans, media, game-day announcers and Condoleezza Rice -- who shortly after the Super Bowl mentioned that maybe she should take over for retiring Commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- are ready to throttle referee Bill Leavy's Super Bowl XL officiating crew.

How can the NFL expect people to trust the officiating, unless what they're seeing out there makes sense?

Seahawks fans will grumble forever about how three blown calls in the first half cost their team three huge offensive plays in their Super Bowl XL loss to Pittsburgh -- the first-quarter holding call on Chris Gray; Darrell Jackson's offensive pass-interference call that wiped out a touchdown; a holding call that erased a 33-yard Peter Warrick punt return. All in the first 20 minutes.

The playoffs? Well, they're the stuff of legend.

Troy Polamalu's overturned diving interception and the offsides "do-over" in the Steelers-Colts game ... Asante Samuel's late defensive pass-interference call on Ashley Lelie and Champ Bailey's forward fumble into the end zone in the Broncos-Patriots game ... Charles Tillman's illegal contact on Steve Smith's 58-yard TD play in the Panthers-Bears game.

To this day, there are busy Internet message boards devoted to flaming the officials, all of whom are part-time contract employees who, 98 percent of the time, actually get it right.

And don't forget the game-day announcers. Their uncontrolled fury. Their righteous indignation. As soon as a flag flies and there is any question at all, television and radio announcers tend to foam at the mouth before the replay official even steps away from his on-field monitor.

They complain before anyone from the NFL bothers to explain to them or clarify what just happened.

So that's the problem -- perception versus reality.

Perhaps McKay is right. The real problem may not be what the striped shirts are calling on the field. Or that the media jumps to conclusions. It's that fans can't respect a rule book that, in some respects, is too bloated, too arbitrary and just plain dumb.

This week in Orlando, the NFL will look to tweak some of those rules, and add a few more.

McKay said the 850 false start penalties in the NFL last season were excessive, so his committee will propose that eligible receivers may reset after flinching, rather than forcing officials to throw a flag.

That's good. One less silly, time-consuming flag.

But there are new rules being proposed, too: Tightening restrictions on low hits on quarterbacks; protecting long-snappers on kicks; no loading up on one side on onside kicks; broadening the horse-collar tackle rule to include the back of the jersey, not just the shoulder pad.

The rulebook will get longer by the end of next week. Bet on it.

It's no wonder that every week NFL teams receive letters conceding the officials may have erred on a particular call.

The league's vice president of officiating, Mike Pereira, even admitted publicly in January that referee Pete Morelli got it wrong in the Steelers-Colts divisional game and that Polamalu was robbed when his diving interception was taken away.

So Morelli made a mistake.

Unfortunately for Raiders fans, referee Walt Coleman did not make a mistake in January 2002, when he took away Charles Woodson's forced fumble hit of quarterback Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game at Foxboro.

He correctly interpreted the "Tuck Rule" -- jot this down, folks -- Rule 3, Section 1, Article 2, Note 2 of that abridged rulebook:

"...any intentional forward movement of (the passer's) arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body."

You know what?

That's a really stupid rule.

Here's a good revision: McKay and the competition committee will propose that referees get only 60 seconds to review a play, rather than 90 seconds.

That's more like it. Cut down on the suspense. And maybe, the product -- warts and all -- will be a lot more believable.
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