The National Football League has finally taken the big plunge and engaged television in officiating games, not simply covering them. The league experimented with a replay system a decade ago, but found the cost prohibitive. It was only a matter of time, however, before the idea was adopted, and this season a new system, using the same replays that home viewers see, is in place.
A replay official, situated in the press box, uses VCR equipment and two TV monitors to backstop the officials on the field, reversing their calls only when indisputable evidence dictates.
This development was inevitable, given TV's penchant for dissecting controversial calls with replay footage, but it will take a while to work out the kinks.
One replay review was so slow in materializing that it came too late to nullify an incorrect touchdown call. Another resulted in a communications gaffe, when ``pass incomplete'' was heard as ``pass is complete.''
Just as distressing to some opponents is the replay system's eye-in-the-sky image, which seems to place the game in the lap of an invisible overseer. There's even speculation that the presence of these detached observers has occasionally rattled field officials.
Maybe it has, but could the men in stripes really feel any more watched-over now than before? TV replays, after all, have turned millions of viewers into armchair jurors. Now, at least, officials are backed up by men assigned to assist them, not bury them.
This, in many ways, seems preferable to hanging officials out to dry and letting a much-replayed call become a cause c'el`ebre afterward.
The NFL has not given guys in the booth carte blanche. The league has limited their powers of reversal to two basic areas - ball-possession calls and sideline, end-zone, goal-line, and line-of-scrimmage calls.
This covers many of the situations where costly errors may occur. More-subjective calls, however, are not covered. The instincts of the field crews are trusted to sort out the vagaries of pass interference, holding, etc.
The replay procedure basically works this way. Following a questionable call, the replay official electronically buzzes the umpire, indicating that a review is under way. One VCR records the original feed, while another tapes the replays provided from different angles. Theoretically, a decision is made quickly enough not to disrupt the normal flow of the game.
So far, however, this has proved an optimistic projection. In fact, the first replay to change a call took several minutes and converted an incomplete pass into a meaningless 4-yard completion on third-and-18.
Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated attributes the problem to the personnel - mostly retired field officials no longer accustomed to making instant decisions.
But would changing officials really speed up the process much? Not necessarily. Reviewing all the evidence from various angles simply takes time, and it's self-defeating to hurry replay officials, who occasionally need more than 15 or 20 seconds for a final verdict.
Of course the NFL game is already dangerously long and full of interruptions, partly because of the increase in passing and clock-stopping incompletions, and also because of TV timeouts, 2-minute warnings, and other stoppages. Any more and the apple cart might tip.
So what to do? The NFL could do worse than imitate the United States Football League, which had a replay system that allowed coaches to challenge a call per half, but penalized teams when challenges weren't upheld. This kept reviews to a minimum, put the onus on the coaches, and streamlined things so replay officials didn't feel like air traffic controllers.
Some argue that reviews should simply be eliminated altogether, since they seem to rob the game of an important human element. People, however, still make the calls, and the intent even now isn't to have perfectly officiated games. To achieve that would entail reviewing the actions of every player for undetected violations.
That is unrealistic. Correcting key officiating errors, however, is both a realistic and desirable objective, given today's replay technology. No one feels good when a blown call affects the outcome of a game, especially at the pro level, where so much money is at stake. And in football there are so few games, each takes on even greater significance.
Then, too, football has a built-in window of time between plays to get the replay wheels in motion. But unlike the photo-finish decisions in horse racing and track, the football replays must be reviewed while the game is still in progress. There is the challenge - to keep them from being too disruptive, not to throw them out with the NFL's bathwater.