John McGrath: Instant replay should be a tool for accuracy, not acrimony

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comNovember 20, 2013 

American television viewers saw the first instant replay 50 years ago, during the Army-Navy game on Dec. 7, 1963.

Moments after Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh scored on a 1-yard keeper in the fourth quarter, the touchdown was replayed once — just once — without benefit of slow motion. Sensing an audience confused by the introduction of the new technology, CBS sportscaster Lindsey Nelson pointed out the difference between what was real and what was on videotape.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Nelson helpfully informed, “Army did not score again!”

The replay machine first used in 1963 weighed 1,300 pounds, qualifying it as the heaviest can of worms in the history of the world.

Instant replay would enhance the sports-viewing experience to the point where those without access to it — fans in stadiums without video boards — came to think of themselves as deprived. Even fans at home grumble when a telecast goes to a commercial break instead of a showing a replay of a disputable call.

But while instant replay is expanding (on deck for 2014: a tentatively approved replay-challenge system for Major League Baseball), its visual-aid potential for football officials continues to incite as many arguments as it solves.

And those delays — three minutes to determine a precise place to spot the ball, five minutes to figure out whether the receiver has possession — are pace killers that impede games of their natural flow.

“Who cares how much time it

takes to get the call right, as long as the call is right?” is a common rationalization used by replay-review advocates.

But not all calls are right after review, and not all plays are subject to review. This past Monday night, for example, a game that affected the playoff picture in both the NFC and AFC came down to a last-second judgment call.

The call quickly was overturned, without either an explanation or a replay review, making me wonder, once again, about a system that finds officials taking three minutes to spot the ball in the second quarter but doesn’t allow them whatever time they need to assure the game-deciding call isn’t made in haste.

Uh, to review: His team trailing 24-20 in the final seconds Monday, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady took a snap at the Carolina Panthers’ 18-yard line and threw a pass intended for tight end Rob Gronkowski. It was a few yards short, and Panthers safety Robert Lester intercepted the ball in the end zone.

Game over? No, the game was very on. Back judge Terrence Miles dropped a flag on Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, whose bear-hug coverage of Gronkowski was so intense, the linebacker didn’t even turn around to track the ball.

By any definition, that’s a pass-interference penalty worth a final play for the Patriots, who would line up at the 1-yard line.

But almost as soon as Miles dropped the flag, referee Clete Blakeman, the crew chief, overruled him: Pass interference didn’t apply, Blakeman decided, because Gronkowski had no reasonable chance to catch the ball.

No kidding. Gronkowski was impeded in the end zone by somebody whose sole intent was to smother him. If Kuechly loosens his wrestling takedown grip on Gronkowski and turns around to face the ball, there is a very reasonable chance the receiver is in position to attempt a catch.

At least that’s what I saw from replays unavailable to Clete Blakeman and his crew, whose “conference” on the Pass Interference Call That Wasn’t lasted about as long as the sound of snapped finger.

I can understand, sort of, why the NFL disallows pass interference from replay review. It’s the most subjective of calls and, thus, the most arbitrary, and overturning an arbitrarily thrown flag after a replay could be embarrassing for the official.

But if replay can’t be used as a second opinion to help reach consensus among refs who clearly see things differently on the most critical play of an important game, what good is it as an officiating tool?

Instant replay, by the way, was the brainchild of Tony Verna, a sports director at CBS. According to Verna, the primitive videotapes required for replay erased copies of several CBS shows, including “I Love Lucy.”

Figures.

Fifty years after a quarterback’s 1-yard scamper was seen for a second time, a deathless voice on an erased tape speaks for everybody frustrated with the flaws of the NFL’s instant-replay system.

You got some ’splainin’ to do.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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