Labriola On

Labriola on depending on replay to 'fix it'

Ready or not, here it comes:

• I’m with Chuck Noll.

• Back in the late 1980s Noll was being lobbied to support the implementation of instant replay as an officiating aid and the argument being posed to him was that this was absolutely, positively necessary for the future of the game because it was a way to get calls right. Noll responded, “What if it doesn’t?”

• It’s now 30-plus years that the instant replay genie has been out of the bottle, and the NFL is no closer to getting every critical call correct in a single game, let alone an entire season or postseason, than I am to be mistaken for George Clooney.

• Instant replay doesn’t work, and it never really has, because if it ever actually served as the panacea it long has been billed to be, the NFL wouldn’t have to be changing it and massaging it and clarifying it and re-focusing it as it now seemingly has to every single year.

• The latest “improvement” came from the recently completed NFL Owners Meeting in Phoenix where ownership voted 31-1 in favor of an expansion of instant replay that first was approved unanimously by the league’s 32 coaches. And so it will be now that offensive pass interference and defensive pass interference will be subject to the league’s replay review system under the existing procedures regarding coaches’ challenges and booth reviews. Offensive pass interference and defensive pass interference, whether a penalty was called on the field or not.

• The process did showcase a historic coming together of the league’s coaches to prepare, present, and then convince ownership that this was critical to the integrity of the future of the game, because it doesn’t cast the sport as it’s being played on the professional level in a very flattering light when fans at home are provided with a clearer and more accurate version of the action than is available to the officials, who ultimately are being asked to enforce the rules in real time.

• A perfectly reasonable viewpoint, and it’s also fair to respect the coaches’ opinion on this issue because the butterfly effect of a bad call in a critical moment could re-shape the outcome of a team’s entire season and significantly impact a coach’s reputation and job status.

• Because it’s mostly Steelers fans reading this, let’s use Mike Tomlin as an example, and we will begin with the final seconds of his team’s game against the Patriots at Heinz Field in 2017. If Jesse James’ catch is ruled a touchdown – as other similar catches in the Super Bowl staged a couple of months later were ruled touchdowns – the Steelers end that season as the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and after a bye in the first round of the playoffs they host Tennessee in the Divisional Round, and Jacksonville goes to New England.

• What if in New Orleans on Dec. 23, 2018, those two pass interference penalties called on the Steelers in the end zone are overturned on replay, or one of them is. The Steelers probably win that game, then clinch another AFC North title for the third straight year the following week with a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, and head into playoffs for the fifth straight year.

• Tomlin is fortunate enough to work for the Steelers, a franchise now headed by Art Rooney II, who learned from his father that the right way to run the football end of the business is to hire a good coach and then be patient with him during the rough patches that are inevitable in an industry built upon the goal of creating as much parity among its member teams as possible.

• So Tomlin’s job wasn’t in jeopardy after a first-round exit in 2017 and missing the playoffs at 9-6-1 in 2018, but think about how the perception of him as a coach would be different if those calls had gone the other way. Imagine how life would’ve been different for his school-age children in a region where many of the residents judge their quality of life by how their favorite football team fared in its most recent outing. Then imagine that negativity spread to every member of his coaching staff, and their families.

• The NFL is a tough business, a high-paying business for sure, and fans of the sport don’t want to get bogged down in any hearts-and-flowers BS having to do with people in the business losing jobs and having to relocate their families as a result. But still, even though football is a game it’s worth trying to understand that there are real-life ramifications to the outcomes of these games beyond bragging rights in the corner tavern over your fantasy league team.

• That’s part of the reason why, I’m sure, the head coaches were so united and adamant about getting this expansion of instant replay passed, because beyond the specific issue of pass interference that this new rule touches upon, it’s also a gateway toward more new rules along these same lines. In other words, to believe that this new rule won’t prompt more additions in future years to what becomes reviewable within the context of an NFL game is delusional.

• But the problem is that what instant replay has shown us over 30-some years is it’s not the answer. It doesn’t do, it hasn’t done, what its proponents have been promising us it will do.

• Are there really fewer officiating screw-ups in today’s game, or just different ones? And does instant replay really solve officiating errors, or just create different ones? Back when it first was instituted, replay was supposed to change the call on the field only if there was definitive visual evidence that an error had been made.

• Based on the league’s reaction to the catch rule some weeks after the Jesse James play was overturned, there was no definitive evidence to overturn that touchdown. Somebody in New York over-reached and took it upon himself to impact a game to a degree not spelled out in the letter of the replay law.

• And so much of the stuff reviewed by replay involves judgment instead of letter-of-the-law enforcement, i.e., was the player starting to lose possession of the ball as it first crossed the plane of the goal line? Crossing the plane is a letter-of-the-law rule, but the concept of whether the player had complete possession of the ball in the act of crossing the plane involves judgment.

• Pass interference clearly is a judgment call, and it’s often referred to with those exact words. Instant replay does not, really it cannot, turn judgment into objective fact, and so it’s just another layer of what somebody “thinks.”

• So it goes, on and on, layers are added without addressing the actual issue, which is people. Players get cut when they become too old to perform, or if the quality of their performance slips below an acceptable level. Coaches get fired for many of the same deficiencies. But what of the officials?

• Even a casual fan probably can come up with the name of the Rams defensive back who committed the foul in the latter stages of that NFC Championship Game, but nobody knows the name of the official standing right there on the sideline who blew the call. How did that official miss that call? Was he out of position because of human error? Did the rules of his job put him out of position? Were his eyes drawn away by something else that happened on another area of the field? Or is it a simple instance of incompetence?

• None of those aspects were assigned responsibility for the outcome of the play, and then the outcome of the game, and instead the solution is to add another layer of bureaucracy onto the whole thing. Yessir, that’ll certainly fix things.

• Unless, as Noll said, it doesn’t.

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