If the league doesn't resolve its labor differences with its regular officials, and replacement officials become the norm in 2012, we better learn to accept officiating mistakes because there are going to be some.
The average fan doesn't appreciate the speed at which today's NFL game is played, and NFL officials have never faced greater demands or scrutiny for their performance. It would be unfair of replacement officials to expect them to perform to the same level as the men they would be replacing. For that matter, why do we expect perfection from any man?
Why? Because of the eye in the sky, which is to say replay review. It changed everything, from the way officials call a game to the perception of their skill level.
Replay review is the equivalent of game tape. Players sit down with the coaches on Monday and watch tape of the previous day's performance. The coaches point out error after error and detail the corrections that need to be made for the next game. Then the players go out and commit the same errors and, by and large, we forgive them, provided they win the game.
Officials, however, are forced to "sit down" with the viewing public and review tape immediately following the calls the officials make, for the purpose of walking to the middle of the field, facing the viewing audience and announce for all the world to hear: "I goofed."
It's got to be humbling. Try it some time. Walk to the middle of the living room, turn to your family and tell them, "After further review, I shouldn't have bought those new golf clubs instead of the big-screen TV you all wanted."
Hey, life's a box of chocolates, right? Sometimes you gotta eat the jelly-filled ones without complaining. You'll get your share of chocolate-covered cherries. Just be patient.
The counter argument, of course, will be that since we have the ability to review and correct mistakes, why not do it for every play, as college football does, instead of for selected plays, as is the NFL's practice? It's a sensible argument, provided you don't want to spend four-and-a-half hours watching a football game, as is often the case with college games. The NFL runs on a very tight schedule; TV time is expensive.
More to the point, what if the league doesn't resolve its impasse on a new contract with its officials? Assuming the players would cross picket lines, as they did in 2001 when the replacement officials worked one preseason and one regular-season game, what impact would replacement officials have on the season if they worked deep into the season?
Application and management of the "coach's challenge" and replay review processes is high-profile and extremely sophisticated. The explanation that follows the decision is extremely sensitive and can sabotage a correct call. Imagine the firestorm of criticism that'll result the first time one of these replacement guys was to pull an Ed Hochuli.
What if a replacement referee faced a review similar to what Gene Steratore did, when review revealed a fumble that should've erased a critical touchdown, but the replay didn't produce conclusive evidence of a recovery? Steratore made the right call, as gutsy as it was. Would a replacement official make the right call?
The bigger question is this: As important as the game of professional football has come to be in our lives, do we have the capacity to appreciate the degree of difficulty officials face and forgive the unintended mistakes they make?
We're all human.
Over time, the eye in the sky has become sharper and more reliable than the human eye 10 yards away, and the NFL has done the right thing in embracing that notion and expanding replay when it makes sense to do so.
Last year, I was in favor of the league expanding replay to include automatic review of all scoring plays, and I even suggested then that turnovers (or plays involving potential turnovers) should be next on the list. Nothing influences a football game more than points and turnovers and, in my opinion, those should not be subject to the coach's challenge system that governs other reviewable plays.
It simply makes no sense for everyone watching on high-definition big screens at home to see what really happened and not have a mechanism for correcting a mistake. Technology has regularly upgraded the fan experience, so why not have it upgrade the officiating as well?
Look at baseball. Two years ago, a pitcher's perfect game was taken away by a blown call at first base. Last week, another pitcher's no-hitter was granted when the third-base umpire didn't see the line drive hit the chalk. Working in baseball's favor is that with 162 games in the regular season, these things have a tendency to even out. In football, with only 16 games, a single call that could significantly influence victory or defeat had better be right.
From what I can recall in my lifetime, baseball has only once had to deal with a postseason result that hinged on a critical, and obviously incorrect, late-game call – Game 6 of the 1985 World Series between the Royals and Cardinals. In this day and age, with multiple angles, super slo-mo, mega-zoom and the like, you can bet another postseason call like Don Denkinger's will get baseball thinking about expanding replay beyond its current, limited home-run scope.
But I digress. Football has it right, and replay is here to stay, if not expand, as long as reviews can be conducted efficiently. The replay system could become even more critical if the NFL ends up hiring replacement officials in 2012. The thought of a team winning a playoffs-or-bust Week 17 game because of a blown call by a replacement official would make the league shudder if it didn't have replay.
Back in the day, I confess there was charm and mystique to controversial calls that put the legitimacy of an outcome in doubt. What really happened when the "ball was pulled out of the air by Franco Harris?" Or when Jackie Robinson stole home in the World Series? Technology couldn't tell us, definitively, and the debates have become part of history.
When technology leaves no room for debate, however, the results should reflect the truth. Everyone so deeply invested in these games – players, coaches and fans – deserves that.
Cast your vote in the poll on the right, and if you leave a comment below, it might be used in an "After Further Review" video segment later this week.