The Electric Commentary

Monday, December 05, 2005

Blow the Whistle!

In the first quarter Dick Stockton suddenly yelled out that "It's a fumble!"

But there was no fumble. Instead, Samkon Gado was viciously clotheslined to the ground by a Bears defensive back. I was about to get angry and start calling Stockton a senile old man, but then I though about why exactly he thought that there was a fumble. Sometimes, whether you're a broadcaster or a fan, you can't see a fumble right away, but you can see the players react to the fumble. On this play, several Bear players reacted as if there was a fumble, trying to strip the ball from Gado well after he was on the ground.

Curiously, no whistle blew until several seconds after Gado was down. This was another instance of an alarming trend in the NFL. It is now undeniable that replay has had a major, and adverse effect on NFL officiating, and that now it is even hurting the announcers' ability to call games.

For the first few years of replay, one of the biggest criticisms leveled against it was that it couldn't be used to overturn plays if the whistle had blown. For instance, on a "down by contact" ruling, it would be impossible to find that a fumble had occurred. The whistle stops action, and everything that happens after the whistle blows didn't happen. This is very logical. Players play until they hear a whistle, and cannot be expected to keep playing through the whistle.

In response to this perceived problem, refs now adhere to a policy that requires restraint with the whistle. Refs are content to let plays go on for as long as possible, and rely on replay to fix any mistakes. There are several problems with this approach.

The first problem is that the burden of proof necessary to overturn a play in replay (indisputable visual evidence) is very high, and that the default is the "ruling on the field." When you let plays go longer than they are supposed to, the ruling on the field is often not only wrong, but catastrophically so. As a play goes on, the chances for a turnover increase greatly. Refs let plays continue out of fear of stopping a big play with a quick whistle, but by letting defensive players continually strip offensive players even when forward momentum has been stopped, or by letting defensive players pick up a "fumble" when a QB's arm was going forward, the refs actually create turnovers, and turnovers are perhaps the most important factor in who wins or loses a game.

Under the current policy, "indisputable visual evidence" is more often required to prove that a turnover didn't happen. The original intent of replay was to fix major mistakes during games. We now have a situation in which replay creates huge mistakes.

The second major problem with replay is that the policy against the "quick whistle" has spread into even the most basic play. I'm convinced that the refs screwed up Jake Plummer's sliding "touchdown" on Sunday because of this. Replay eventually corrected the problem, but it cost Dick Vermeil a challenge (Denver scored two plays later anyway), and replay probably wouldn't have been necessary if replay didn't exist already.

There are other problems with replay, of course. It's slow, refs do not reliably adhere to the "indisputable visual evidence" standard, and in the last two minutes of the game the booth shows poor discretion when deciding what it will review. (I've noticed that the booth will review almost any play involving whether a receiver's feet are in bounds, but they will rarely (I think I've seen it once) review the spot of a ball, even if it is the difference between winning an losing. If you noticed on Sunday during the Chiefs/Broncos game Dick Vermeil challenged the spot of a Jake Plummer run right at the two minute warning. The announcers assumed that the booth would not have challenged the spot had the play occurred just a few seconds later.)

The most serious problem, however, is the change in ref culture. The NFL provided them with a safety net and it changed their behavior, as you would expect. I was once a proponent of replay in the NFL, but at this point I don't think it is worth the wasted time and poor officiating that it has produced. Refs will make mistakes, and that will never change, but there are costs to correcting those mistakes. The mistakes inherent in the NFL replay system are worse than the mistakes that they are intended to correct.

Update: MDS points out, in the comments section, that the NFL's worst official, Jeff Triplette, has decided that it's OK to let players play through the whistle:

Paul is absolutely right. However, there's one ref who doesn't let the rules stop him from enforcing the game how he wants: Jeff Triplette. Click the link, what happened in Ravens-Bengals is that a Bengals player fumbled and a Ravens player picked it up and ran it into the end zone, but an official thought he was down and blew the whistle. That means it's Bengals ball where they had it when the official blew the whistle, but Triplette inexplicably gave the Ravens the ball. He just disregarded the rule saying nothing happens after the whistle because he thought it would be more fair to give the Ravens the ball.

12 Comments:

  • Which is all but a long-winded way of saying the Packers now are 2 and 10.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:34 PM  

  • It is? I thought he was talking about he Chiefs Vs. Broncos game.

    By Anonymous A different anonymous, at 2:52 PM  

  • Nah. They're 2-10 because they suck, not because of the refs.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 2:53 PM  

  • I was talking about refs in general. These are just examples. The Cheifs/Broncos game was just good for examples, as it had many challenges, and I actually saw it.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 2:54 PM  

  • Gado plays for the Packers.

    I didn't read the whole thing.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:36 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 3:54 PM  

  • I was at a friend's house, and we were restricted to the Fox and CBS broadcasts. The two games that I got to see were the Pack and the Chiefs/Broncos.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 3:54 PM  

  • Paul is absolutely right. However, there's one ref who doesn't let the rules stop him from enforcing the game how he wants: Jeff Triplette. Click the link, what happened in Ravens-Bengals is that a Bengals player fumbled and a Ravens player picked it up and ran it into the end zone, but an official thought he was down and blew the whistle. That means it's Bengals ball where they had it when the official blew the whistle, but Triplette inexplicably gave the Ravens the ball. He just disregarded the rule saying nothing happens after the whistle because he thought it would be more fair to give the Ravens the ball.

    By Blogger MDS, at 10:39 AM  

  • Good old Jeff Triplette. You never know what that guy is going to do.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 10:47 AM  

  • I believe the Packers had the same thing happen, to their advantage, in the opening game of the 2003 season. Triplette, perhaps?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:40 PM  

  • I can't watch the replay with sound where I am to see exactly when the whistle blows, but the proper rule is that if the ref blows the whistle thinking the player is down, but after the Defense has already recovered the ball, the referee awards the ball to the defense. It is only what happens after the whistle that is irreversible, so if the exchange of possession occurs before the whistle ends, the possession at the time of the whistle stands.

    By Anonymous Scott, at 6:05 PM  

  • You are absolutely right! Anytime I see him and his crew, I dread the calls to come. I cannot believe the NFL allows him to continue officiating. Wrong calls, wrong players all the time! So many holding calls... There is some kind of holding on every play. The object being to call the blatant holds and let the minor holding slide. There is one thing to be greatful to the NFL for; instant replays and challenges. Without them, Triplett and his crew would have definitely affected the outcome of the majority of games they call! BAN TRIPLETT!!!!

    By Anonymous Packfan808, at 5:28 PM  

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