FACING THE MUSIC
Behind the scenes with embattled officials as they prepare for a
The man with the snow-white hair, windbreaker and loafers
settled into a couch in a Pittsburgh airport hotel lobby last
Saturday night, and if you didn't know better, you might have
thought he was a businessman who had just taken advantage of the
October-like weather to sneak in one more round of golf in 1998.
Instead, he was here to stand up for his part-time
profession--NFL officiating--and his 111 colleagues who have
come under so much fire for their recent mistakes.
"You'd have to be a recluse not to feel the heat," said 21-year
veteran official Dick Hantak, 60, one of the league's 16
referees and the chief of the seven-man crew that worked the
Patriots-Steelers game on Sunday. Ten days earlier referee Phil
Luckett had presided over the botched overtime coin flip in the
Steelers-Lions game, incorrectly handing the ball to Detroit,
which promptly drove for the winning field goal. In the
Patriots' final-play win over the Bills three days later, line
judge Dave Anderson and field judge Dick Creed extended New
England's decisive drive by incorrectly giving wideout Shawn
Jefferson a completion on fourth-and-nine when he caught the
ball out-of-bounds; on the next play side judge Terry McAulay
made an incomprehensible pass interference call on a Hail Mary,
setting up New England's winning touchdown.
"Don't misunderstand," Hantak said. "We should be criticized when
we blow a call. It goes with the territory. But there were 2,200
calls last weekend, and how many are we talking about? Two?"
Two that may end up costing Buffalo a playoff spot. Hantak said
the league's other officials "lived and died with that crew in
New England. Unfortunately they missed two calls. But if they
get the first call right, then the second play never happens.
Our greatest fear--all of us--is that we'll do something to cost
somebody a game."
On Sunday, Luckett's crew did just that. The Seahawks were
leading the Jets 31-26 with 27 seconds to play when New York's
Vinny Testaverde attempted a quarterback sneak on
fourth-and-goal from the Seattle five. Head linesman Earnie
Frantz immediately signaled touchdown. The crew huddled for
almost a minute before Luckett finally signaled the same.
However, TV replays showed that only the crown of Testaverde's
helmet crossed the plane of the goal line, while the ball, which
he bobbled short of the end zone, never made it across.
Can anybody say replay? Members of the media are rarely granted
access to officials, but Hantak was allowed to shed light on
several hot topics.
On instant replay: "I really don't care if it comes back. If we
have any officials worried about replay, they shouldn't be on the
staff. We're told to use a Wilson ball, so we use it. If we're
told to use instant replay, we'll use it, and let the chips fall
where they may."
On the cry for full-time officials: "We have lawyers, CEOs,
businessmen doing this job. If you look at the cost analysis, I
don't see how it would be worth it or how it would make the
On the blizzard of criticism: "All of us want to be liked, but it
doesn't affect my job."
Hantak, a retired teacher, then hustled up two floors to the
weekly meeting every referee has with his crew on the eve of a
game. At a conference table with six fellow officials and, as
always, two observers from the league office, Hantak attended to
some housekeeping, then got down to business: watching and
discussing director of officiating Jerry Seeman's weekly tape of
plays from recent games with voice-over commentary from Seeman.
There were kudos all around the room for head linesman Dale
Williams, who aced a call in the crew's previous game, Tennessee
at Seattle. Oilers running back Eddie George grazed the right
front-corner pylon on a two-point conversion run that would have
tied the score in the fourth quarter. George, however, had the
ball in his right hand, and it didn't break the plane of the goal
line before he stepped out-of-bounds. Williams ruled no score.
"Great job, Dale," Hantak said.
Late on the tape came the two plays from the Buffalo-New England
game. A slow-motion replay showed that Jefferson did not get his
feet down in bounds, prompting Seeman to say on the tape, "Look
at the feet. Never got down. This is an incomplete pass."
Seeman's voice had been professorial as he reviewed calls and
tipped officials on fine points, but on the Hail Mary pass
interference penalty his tone turned grim. "We have talked,
men," Seeman said. "Your calls had better be Super Bowl
calls.... We don't want to determine the outcome of games unless
it's the most blatant thing you've seen." As the play was shown
from several angles, the room grew silent. New England wideout
Terry Glenn was slightly jostled, as everyone is on a Hail Mary,
but there was no interference as he tried to catch the ball.
"There is no foul," Seeman said with passion. "There is no foul.
It's incomprehensible as much as we prepare.... When we make
such a blatant error in judgment, we deserve the criticism we
get." The room remained quiet as Seeman finished. "The greatest
attribute of the NFL official is common sense. Under no
conditions should an official or officials ever be involved in a
situation like this again."
The crew spent another 90 minutes reviewing a video from
Oilers-Seahawks, then took its weekly rules interpretation test
and went over the answers. Hantak was in his room by 9:30 p.m.,
hoping to remain out of the spotlight during the next day's game
at Three Rivers Stadium. "You know the greatest compliment we can
get?" Hantak said. "It's at the end of the game, if people say, I
wonder which officials worked that game?"
Instant Replay, Anyone?
Backers Can't Agree on System
Year in and year out, Ralph Wilson has voiced opposition to the
idea of using instant replay to aid officials, so when the
Bills' owner said last week that he would support a limited use
of videotape review, it was big news. With the expansion Browns
expected to bring an additional vote of support, replay
proponents should have the 24 votes they need at the NFL
meetings in March to reinstate replays. On Monday the league was
already exploring the possibility of a quick fix--a limited use
of replays for this postseason. A vote is scheduled for next week.
But when the owners convene in the spring, can 24 agree on a
permanent system? There is sentiment for three types of replay:
1) the original system, with an official reviewing certain types
of calls in a booth high in the stadium; 2) a challenge format,
in which coaches would be able to dispute two or three calls;
and 3) a more radical system that would also include reviews of
judgment calls such as pass interference.
The teams are so divided that it's hard to imagine any of the
three plans getting 24 votes. Even some teams are split on the
question. Members of the Steelers, for instance, disagree on how
to implement it. Club president Dan Rooney wants the format that
includes reviewing judgment calls. Coach Bill Cowher wants to
pick up the system the league used for six years beginning in
1986; he hates the challenge concept because a coach will be
powerless to contest a blatantly poor call if he has already
used his allotted number of protests. But Cowher admits he might
support the challenge system if he thought it was the only way
to get replay back. "I guess a poor form's better than no form,"
Jerome Bettis's Travails
The Bus Has a Flat
Steelers franchise back Jerome Bettis is a jovial sort, rarely
without a smile. But last Saturday he looked tired, tired of
struggling in a suddenly weak running game and worn out from the
controversy that followed the botched overtime coin flip against
the Lions. "The coin flip will be with me for the rest of my
life," said Bettis, who called tails only to have referee Phil
Luckett insist he said heads. "It'll never leave."
Lately it has seemed as though the first slump Bettis has
endured since a disastrous year with the Rams in 1995 will be
everlasting too. Dealt to the Steelers in '96, Bettis averaged
97 yards rushing per game over the next two regular seasons.
This year he's struggling to reach the 1,000-yard mark. After a
12-carry, 48-yard performance in a 23-9 loss to the Patriots on
Sunday, he has 879 yards with three games to play.
Bettis, 26, has been running behind an injury-wracked line, but
what about the play-calling? On Pittsburgh's first 22 snaps
against New England, he carried eight times for 44 yards, and
the Steelers trailed only 6-0. But on the 39 plays during the
rest of the game he touched the ball just four times. The
Steelers ought to know better. If you bang the 252-pound Bettis
long enough, he can break a defense. "It makes me laugh when
people say I'm washed up or I've lost a step," he says. "We have
just had no rhythm from one game to the next."
So the 7-6 Steelers, barring a three-game winning streak to end
the regular season or a lot of help from teams ahead of them in
the AFC wild-card chase, will miss the playoffs for the first
time in coach Bill Cowher's seven years. The players can almost
smell the off-season. "I'm confident things will work out for
us," says linebacker Levon Kirkland, "if not this year then next
49ers Hurting Without Tackle
Niners players and coaches are crushed by the loss of defensive
tackle Bryant Young, who broke his right leg on Nov. 30 against
the Giants. Already suspect at cornerback, San Francisco can't
expect to go far in the playoffs with a tackle rotation of
career backup Junior Bryant, converted end Gabe Wilkins and
Lions reject Shane Bonham. Against the Panthers the 49ers blew a
21-point lead before winning in overtime 31-28. "He's not
completely healthy, but it's time for Gabe to show us what he's
got," coach Steve Mariucci says of Wilkins, an off-season
free-agent acquisition.... Look for the Colts and the Packers to
use their franchise tags on running back Marshall Faulk and
wideout Antonio Freeman, respectively, effectively keeping them
off the free-agent market in the off-season.
The End Zone
Those Hoarsey Broncos
In advance of his team's game with bitter rival Kansas City,
ever-loquacious Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe refused to talk
to the media. That, plus coach Mike Shanahan's dislike of the
league's injury-reporting system, led the Broncos to add the
following to last week's injury report: "TE Shannon Sharpe
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS After a series of high-profile blunders, NFL officials took heat from the public and their boss (page 82) [Football officials--T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: MICHELLE V. AGINS/THE NEW YORK TIMES Testaverde's helmet broke the plane of the goal line, but the football he was carrying didn't. [New York Jets tackling Vinny Testaverde]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS [Tim Couch in game]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS The wheels have come off the Bus, who has one 100-yard rushing game in the last six weeks. [Jerome Bettis in game]
The 1999 draft will have depth at the skill positions,
particularly at quarterback. Based on interviews with personnel
men from eight NFL teams, here are the probable top dozen
picks--including juniors (noted with asterisks) who are expected
to come out early. Conspicuous by their absence are two highly
touted juniors, Ohio State linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer and North
Carolina cornerback Dre' Bly, both of whom had subpar seasons.
PLAYER POSITION COLLEGE HEIGHT WEIGHT
Tim Couch (above)* QB Kentucky 6'5" 225
Rifle-armed passer could be the man who the expansion Browns
Ricky Williams RB Texas 6'0" 225
One of the draft's top prizes comes with one warning: He wants
to play baseball, too
Daunte Culpepper QB Central Florida 6'4" 240
A polished Steve McNair as a passer, but he's a little slow afoot
Champ Bailey* WR-CB Georgia 6'1" 186
A Deion of sorts with great cover skills and the ability to
double as a receiver
Torry Holt WR N.C. State 6'2" 186
Caught 88 passes, 10 for TDs, and returned two punts for scores
Ebenezer Ekuban DE North Carolina 6'4" 265
His 4.67 speed makes this converted tight end a top
Jevon Kearse* OLB Florida 6'5" 254
Speed rusher who could be tried at defensive end as a pro
David Boston* WR Ohio State 6'3" 215
Cocky, but has the speed and size of a prototypical big receiver
Akili Smith QB Oregon 6'3" 215
Burst onto the scene this season, completing 59% of his passes
Chris Claiborne* LB USC 6'3" 250
Tremendous playmaker whose stock has risen after big year with
Donovan McNabb QB Syracuse 6'3" 220
Mobile with strong arm; after great senior season could easily
slip into top 10
John Tait* T BYU 6'6" 310
Quick feet make this mountain a bona fide blind-side
protector sports illustrated
1. GREEN'S MACHINE Can anybody in the NFC slow down the Vikings?
Can the Broncos? With three games left, Minnesota has already
scored more points (442) than 11 of the 12 playoff teams scored
all last season. The Vikings' offense looks as dominating as the
Super Bowl champion Bears' defense of 1985.
2. IT'S EASIER THAN IT LOOKS Six days after Raiders quarterback
Jeff George pronounced himself out for the year with a groin
injury, sub Donald Hollas played one of the worst games in NFL
history, throwing six interceptions and getting sacked eight
times in a 27-17 loss to the Dolphins. "Funny," Hollas said
after Oakland's fourth straight loss. "I was watching an HBO
special, and some guy threw seven interceptions. I thought, How
in the world can you throw seven interceptions?"
3. HERE COME THE SAINTS Four days after an inspirational talk by
owner Tom Benson, the Saints spanked the Cowboys 22-3, holding
Dallas to a franchise-record-low eight yards rushing. Afterward,
Benson predicted that 6-7 New Orleans would make its first
playoff appearance since '92. With games remaining against the
Falcons, Cardinals and Bills, the Saints will have earned a spot
in the postseason if they make it.