Even with replacement refs long gone, NFL officials still making embarrassing gaffes

Michael Silver
Yahoo! Sports

When Denver Broncos return specialist Trindon Holliday darted to his right and outran the Carolina Panthers' punt-coverage unit Sunday afternoon, the electrifying burst had ramifications that went beyond breaking a 7-7 tie on the first play of the second quarter.

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By taking one to the house, Holliday may have caused Panthers special teams coordinator Brian Murphy to move out of his house.

Holliday's 76-yard return for touchdown, which provided the winning points in the Broncos' 36-14 victory at Bank of America Stadium, appeared to be the tipping point that led Carolina coach Ron Rivera to fire Murphy on Monday morning. There's just one problem: Holliday's score should never have been allowed. Television replays showed that Holliday released the football shortly before crossing the goal line, and that it bounced into the end zone and out of bounds for what should have been ruled a touchback.

On Monday, the NFL issued a statement confirming that Holliday's TD should have been overturned via replay review, which is supposed to occur automatically (at the booth official's discretion) after scoring plays. It was one of two egregious errors Sunday for which the league effectively apologized, the other being the inexplicable 71-second clock runoff during a ball spot and measurement in the first half of the St. Rams-San Francisco 49ers game, the NFL's answer to the infamous 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes.

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Quick, bring back the replacement refs.

Yes, that was a joke. I don't miss that farcical three-week stretch at the start of the season when the regular officials were locked out, and neither should you. (This is especially true for Green Bay Packers fans.)

That said, Sunday's gaffes served as a stark reminder that even the world's best football officials are far from perfect — and that if the NFL wants to have a replay-review system that rises to the standard befitting the nation's most popular sport, the league still has some work to do.

In retrospect, though it seemed like a strong-arm bargaining tactic at the time, perhaps the NFL's insistence upon creating a pool of extra officials to serve as a "bench" for under-performing crew members was a sincere effort to address this issue. There have been other ideas suggested in recent years, from making some or all officials full-time employees to taking replay decisions out of the hands of the referee, and these are not necessarily without merit, either.

Personally, I'd start with one obvious and necessary philosophical change to the current system, one which I'll summarize in two words: Slow down!

Seriously, guys — what's the hurry? I understand the league's desire not to alienate consumers by filling games with needless delays, and I'm averse to creating an overzealous, nitpicking environment that kills the sport's natural flow.

However, there are a few truths that we must confront:

1. Pro football, both economically and in terms of artistic presentation, is beholden to television like no other sport. In this HDTV-enhanced era of otherworldly visual clarity, the audience's ability to spot blatant officiating injustice cannot be ignored.

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2. The current system calls for automatic upstairs reviews of all scoring plays and turnovers, meaning we have already crossed the threshold of micromanagement mitigation. The goal, quite clearly, is to get as many game-turning plays as possible called correctly, either the old-fashioned way or through replay overturns. We can't — and won't — go back to the way it was before.

3. There is a lot riding on these decisions that affect the outcomes of NFL games, beginning with your fantasy team's fortunes, extending to the bank accounts of gamblers and, as Murphy can attest, to the employment prospects of coaches, players and front-office executives, among others. Legacies, career paths and even dynasties are beholden to these calls. Think about the Snow Bowl — whether you believe the "Tuck Rule" was legitimately implemented after Charles Woodson seemingly forced that game-clinching Tom Brady fumble, and how much changed for those two men (and Bill Belichick, Jon Gruden, Robert Kraft, Al Davis and so many others) as a result of the ruling.

Put all these realities of the 21st century NFL together, and the only logical solution is to enhance the process by which automatic replay reviews are adjudicated. Again, there are many tweaks worth pondering, but for now let's focus on the easiest and most obvious fix: Instructing the referee not to move on to the next play — and this includes extra points — until the upstairs replay official is certain that no further study is required. Or, if the notion of delayed PATs bothers you, change the current rule to allow replay overturns to take place after the kick, but before the ensuing kickoff.

As a practical matter, the league could decree that television timeouts occur immediately following most touchdowns (before or after PATs, depending upon which of the above model you prefer) and turnovers. That wouldn't help the tens of thousands of people inside the stadium, but let's face it — they are used to having their needs sublimated for those of the TV audience, anyway.

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Institutionalizing 60-second breaks after TDs and turnovers isn't an ideal state of affairs, but if it eliminates embarrassingly incorrect calls, that's a tradeoff I'm willing to accept. This wouldn't solve everything, of course. For example, the officials in the Rams-49ers game who failed to notice the clock-operator's failure to press the pause button for a minute and 11 seconds need to avoid similar trances in the future, and there's not too much else to say about that.

Ultimately, that game at Candlestick Park would be extended by an entire 15-minute overtime period and end with each team having scored 24 points — the NFL's first tie since 2008. Yet ultimately, the ticking-clock fiasco wasn't its most maddening moment. That came on the final play of overtime, when St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford threw a 24-yard pass to Brandon Gibson down the left sideline, with the receiver falling out of bounds at the Rams' 49-yard line as time expired.

Or had it? It looked like a pretty close call, and not an insignificant one: If a replay review had determined that the play had been whistled dead with a second remaining, it could have set up a 69-yard field goal attempt by strong-legged Rams rookie Greg Zuerlein (not completely outside the realm of possibility) or a Hail Mary by Bradford.

Because the play occurred in overtime (and, for that matter, in the final two minutes), it was the replay official's discretion as to whether a review was appropriate. Clearly, there was enough riding on assuring that the timing was correct that it merited another look.

Yet, inconceivably, the game ended as soon as Gibson hit the turf and the official on the field blew the play dead. How hard would it have been to spend an extra 30 or 45 seconds making sure the clock had actually expired?

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Similarly, after reviewing Holliday's return to make sure that he hadn't stepped out of bounds, would it have killed the upstairs official to follow the replay through its conclusion and, after spotting the potential touchback, flag it for the referee to review?

If so, the viewers might have been slightly inconvenienced, but for a good cause: The phantom touchdown would have likely been disallowed, and the Panthers would have taken over at their own 20-yard line with the game still tied.

We'll never know if such a correction would have saved Murphy's job or changed the course of the game to Carolina's benefit, but at the very least justice would have been served.

Moving forward, I hope the booth officials will remember this cautionary tale and heed my advice: Take your time. It's worth it.

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