Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.
Ditka skeptical of replays
Originally published Aug. 26, 1985
The Bears’ Mike Ditka is one of several NFL head coaches who doesn’t care for instant replays as an officiating aide. Among NFC Central Division coaches, he’s in the majority.
“I just hate to see the game become electronic and mechanical,” says Ditka, who will be involved in the league’s most serious replay experiment when the Bears play at Dallas tonight. “I think we pay people to do the job, and I think it’s just like players and coaches. If officials don’t do the job, they should be replaced.
“I think we have to have a better way of teaching, indoctrinating, coaching and grading our officials until we get the very best ones out there.
“They do a good job now. But I think there’s always room to improve.”
Like Ditka, Viking coach Bud Grant worries that replays could become a crutch that would erode officials’ competence.
“I’m repeating myself – and I’ve already paid the fines for it. I think we need better officials,” Grant says.
“I think once you get involved in replays, you’ll have a non-ending change. Every year, it will be how many cameras do we use? How many angles? How many timeouts? Do we show commercials during the time outs?”
For now, the replays are limited to the ones used by television crews. The idea is to enable officiating teams to correct a mistake that’s obvious to fans in their living rooms.
An eighth official sits in an upstairs booth with a television monitor. He can intercede only on possession calls: Was it a fumble? Was it a legal catch? Was he in or out of bounds?
In the Denver-San Francisco game last Monday, NFL officiating supervisor Art McNally was the eighth official. He changed a complete pass and fumble into an incomplete pass.
The upstairs official waits for the televised replay. One must appear within 20 seconds of the play for it to be re-evaluated. If it does, he electronically notifies the field officials to delay the next play and gather for a crew conference.
If the first replay is inconclusive, the eighth official allows play to continue. If it indicates a mistake, he can ask for another replay before overruling the call.
Coaches still cannot challenge an official’s call, as they can do in some USFL games. The initiative is entirely the eighth official’s. That keeps the replay procedure from slowing the game.
But the interest in speed only heightens the concern that has kept the NFL cool toward using replays in the last decade: What if a call is overturned because of a replay, and a different picture the next day shows the original call was correct?
Depends on angle
“I can remember sitting in league meetings,” Tampa Bay coach Leeman Bennett says, “and when you looked at a shot from one angle, everybody called it one way. Then you flipped it over to another angle and everybody called it the opposite way.”
Bennett and Green Bay’s Forrest Gregg haven’t taken a stand, but the other three NFC Central coach are against using replays.
Another nightmarish scenario would have officials giving the home team a touchdown catch. Then, as the team lines up to kick the extra point, the upstairs official says the touchdown didn’t count.
“That’s right,” Ditka says. “But the other thing is – you look at the play against St. Louis in Dallas, it kept St. Louis out of the playoffs. Who’s to say if they got into the playoffs that they wouldn’t have gone all the way?”
Ditka was referring to an offensive pass interference call against Roy Green, which nullified a decisive touchdown. Replays showed the call was wrong.
“If one bad call that could cost somebody a game is changed, then it’s worth the experiment,” says Don Shula, the most prominent coach on the NFL’s Competition Committee.
There’s also doubt about whether officials will welcome the change, even for the sake of accuracy.
Five years ago, later replays showed Ed Marion was wrong when he ruled Walter Payton fumbled near Atlanta’s goal line. His response was “So what?” indicating he considered accuracy less important than having the call upheld.
Marion was rewarded that year with a job in a playoff game. Officials are fired much less frequently than players or coaches. Only four of 106 officials last year were replaced for any reason, including retirement.
“I think if you get better officials, you won’t need to use replays,” Ditka says. “They try very hard. But still, it gets very disappointing when you want to talk to one of them, have them explain something, and they ignore you.”