John McGrath

John McGrath: As Duke-Miami kickoff return fiasco proves, replay more of a hinderance than help

Miami’s Corn Elder (29) throws a lateral during a kickoff return which featured multiple laterals before Elder subsequently received the final lateral and scored to beat Duke 30-27 on Saturday. The officiating crew was suspended two games for missing several calls on the play.
Miami’s Corn Elder (29) throws a lateral during a kickoff return which featured multiple laterals before Elder subsequently received the final lateral and scored to beat Duke 30-27 on Saturday. The officiating crew was suspended two games for missing several calls on the play. The Associated Press

The essential premise for using booth reviews as officiating tools is to get the call right. It’s all that counts.

Getting the call right, replay proponents argue, justifies the stultifying, awkward delays that are destroying the natural pace of the games we love.

The problem is that getting the call right often is no easier during a review seen in super slow motion than it is in real time. Take the folly Atlantic Coast Conference officials determined to be a deciding touchdown last Saturday night, when Miami combined to throw eight laterals, flips and backwards passes en route to a 91-yard trip to the Duke end zone.

Aside from the fact the return shouldn’t have counted — after the knee of Miami ball carrier Mark Walton touched the ground at his own 26-yard line, the Hurricanes were guilty of two illegal blocks — it was a remarkable hot-potato drill best remembered by this number:

Nine minutes.

That’s how long officials needed to, well, not get the call right. Conference commissioner John Swofford concluded Monday the play “was not handled appropriately,” and suspended the crew of on-field and replay officials for two league games.

The suspensions are of no consolation to Duke. Even though the kick return was proven to be too flawed, and even though no time would have remained after Walton’s knee touched the ground, NCAA rules stipulate that all scores are final.

To sum up: The Blue Devils suffered a 30-27 defeat because the officiating crew erred despite its access to replay review, once touted as the wonder drug capable of solving any conceivable controversy.

Replay review is anything but a wonder drug. Replay review is a mess. Definition of a mess: officials reviewing an obviously bogus touchdown return once, twice, three times, four times — reviewing the darn thing for nine minutes — and still allowing it to stand.

Only some sort of curmudgeonly dinosaur would recommend that replay review be scrapped. And while I fit the description of a curmudgeon and a dinosaur, I’d rather not be both.

I figured relying on communications technology to assist naked-eye judgments would be a can of worms, but it’s here to stay, and it’s too late to turn back. Case closed.

But there are some aspects of replay review that make me want to shout words inappropriate for a family publication.

The safe-out call on a baseball slide, for instance. In the old days, an umpire positioned himself to see whether the tag was applied before the runner reached base. Disagreements inevitably ensued, and the manager was tossed now and then, but the world kept on turning.

Thanks to the “help” of replay, slides now are reviewed in enhanced slow-motion that devolves a real-time second into hundreds of microseconds. Did the runner fail to remain in contact with the bag by a fraction of an inch?

The slide is watched on a monitor over and over, slower and slower. Dust particles, the size of popcorn kernels, float about the TV screen as the broadcaster, ever helpful, informs us: “That’s a close call, a very close call. This can go either way.”

Stop this nonsense. The call was made by an qualified observer. If the qualified observer is clearly mistaken, then overturn it. But changing a decision based on scant evidence impossible to detect in real time — this is progress?

A compromise can be achieved here: Use the replay-review process reasonably. Regard it more as a convenient resource than The Answer To Everything. If the review doesn’t achieve closure after, say, a minute, then honor the original verdict.

Along the way, let’s review what’s reviewable. A replay shows a penalty is warranted by a block to the back on a kickoff return? Enforce the penalty.

But enough, please, with these episodes of prolonged consternation that makes some overwhelmed guys in the replay booth the ultimate decision makers whose verdict is the difference between one college football team winning and another team losing.

Nine minutes were devoted Saturday to getting the call right, and the call was so wrong, the officials were suspended.

But I’ve been wrong, too. My suspicion replay review would open a can of worms was way off the mark.

It opened a can of snakes.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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