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Football Commentary: Replay system needs overhaul

Ken Fowler | Tuesday, November 27, 2007

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Somehow, this ending was fitting.

With Notre Dame’s 21-14 win over Stanford, a frustrating, bizarre and poorly officiated game concluded the season – for the Irish anyway – in this, the Year of the Wacky.

For a moment, at least, let’s ponder what clear judgments we can deduce by reviewing this insane season’s final game.

The Pacific 10 Conference replay officials inexplicably overturned a remarkable touchdown catch by David Grimes; Trevor Laws shoved an offensive lineman’s head into the ground, negating what would have been one of the most exciting scores in Notre Dame history; and Terrail Lambert knocked Tavita Pritchard out of the game, for a time, with a hit to the head.

Laws’ penalty was at least understandable, as was the non-call when Terrail Lambert hit Pritchard in the head as the quarterback attempted a clumsy diving slide. But there is no legitimate explanation for the reversal of Grimes’ touchdown catch.

Had Evan Moore or Richard Sherman hauled in one of T.C. Ostrander’s two final passes – both easily catchable – Stanford probably would have gone for a two-point conversion and quite possibly could have won the game. The Cardinal didn’t, but the Pac 10’s inane replay nearly cost the Irish the game.

There’s one thing to remember about wackiness, though. Out of oddity often flows clear thinking: It’s time to review the review system.

Let’s start from the top: Replay should stay.

There are two common strands of arguments against replay in general.

One is that the replay system attempts to get rid of the human element of the game and refereeing. The problem with this line is that the argument is only half true. Replay attempts to eliminate human error, not human element. Shouldn’t one goal be to make sure officials don’t make errors that change what would be the just outcome of the game?

The example of Grimes’ catch is one of a play where replay turned a good call wrong, but it is the exception rather than the rule. Replay officials have overturned far more bad calls than they have reversed correct calls. Take, for instance, Pritchard’s fumble, Clausen’s incompletion and Anthony Kimble’s touchdown – just to name those from a single game.

The other argument against replay is that it slows down the pace of the game too much – momentum is killed, and play slows to a crawl. This comes down to a value judgment, however. Which do you value more: greatly increasing the chance of getting a call on the field correct, or the pace of the game? This writer stands steadfast with the former.

So then the question becomes: Does the present system need changing?

Currently, the away team supplies the field officials (Notre Dame sends Big East referees), and the home team provides its conference-affiliated replay officials. After the game, Irish coach Charlie Weis proposed having a single conference crew in charge of both the field work and the replay booth.

But the main advantage of the split crews is balance. Every conference benefits when its teams win: more bowl eligible teams, more television revenue and more prestige. Obviously, the conferences don’t want clearly biased officiating to become a significant problem, but the split-roles at least minimize the negative affects a poor officiating crew can have; bad calls can be overturned.

However, there are some undeniable problems with replay in general. Referees are using the possibility of review as an excuse to delay blowing plays dead. That can lead to non-reviewable plays, like Connecticut’s punt return against Louisville; absurd late hit flags thrown for collisions before a whistle is blown, like the one against Notre Dame had against Duke; and, sometime soon, serious injuries.

So what’s the answer?

First, the NCAA should take over the officiating responsibilities from the conferences for all Division I games. The major problem with this plan is that conference-based officiating crews offer the benefit of limiting the referees’ travel; in-conference games are almost always geographically close, and most teams play only four out-of-conference games for which referees would have to travel far distances.

Thus, the NCAA should absorb all current referees working and divide them into non-conference, regional zones. Thus, the ACC and SEC would have many of the same referees working their games. In this setup, referees would earn their paychecks from the NCAA and have a limited possibility of conference bias. Abandoning the split-crew setup for the replay booth also would indicate a strong movement towards neutrality. (Until there’s one governing body, however, this is a bad idea.)

There are a few other things that need to happen.

First, the NCAA should alter the replay rules to allow for a change of possession when a referee incorrectly blows a whistle when a player fumbles before hitting the ground. Second, and connected, the NCAA should stress to officials the importance of blowing their whistles at the correct times – and not penalizing players who tackle an opponent before a whistle has blown. Finally, the NCAA ought to hold sessions with referees to reinforce the importance of the doctrine of “indisputable” or “conclusive” evidence on instant replay.

Instant replay has a place in college football, but it needs to change.

Notre Dame can just be thankful the darker side of the replay booth didn’t cost the Irish their season-ending win.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Ken Fowler at kfowler1@nd.edu.