The History of Instant Replay in the NFL – Benefit or Detriment??

Most people will agree that all tools at your disposal should be used to provide a positive outcome. Yet when do we cross the line in overusing said tool to compound issues it was supposed to address?? One of the interesting aspects of instant replay as an officiating tool has really boiled down to determining what is or isn’t a catch.

Does the NFL need all of this to figure out instant replay??

Oh sure you’ll see a replay concerning a kick returner stepping out of bounds, or if a runner’s knee/elbow touches the ground before a fumble, or even to check the ball spot before bringing out the chains for a 1st down. Its the catch that has been scrutinized to the point where we have to ask the question: When it comes to judging a catch in the NFL has instant replay outlasted it’s usefulness??

To understand the depth of the question we have to return to the growth from its genesis.

Back in the 1970s the NFL really sped up from the 3 yard and a cloud of dust days of the 1960’s as the game evolved into a speed game. With the advent of astroturf and the full fruition of the American Football League’s drafting speed at every position became commonplace. Televising the game became more sophisticated as additional and more creative camera angles brought the viewer a more immersed experience. The game had sped up but middle aged referees had not and there were spots on the football field they couldn’t get to where a well placed camera could capture the moment.

However those camera angles and instant replay could not be used to aid an official. Fans everywhere were becoming Monday Morning quarterbacks discussing blown calls the day after with their favorite teams. The talk of replay being used as an officiating tool really began during the 15 minute delay after The Immaculate Reception and the official ruling of a touchdown in the 1972 playoffs. Even the networks began to chime in showing replay after replay where the big eye in the sky told a different tale than what officials called on the field. Yet it took two huge blown calls in playoff competition that brought the issue to the rule makers.

The first occurred at the goal line in the 2nd quarter of the 1977 AFC Championship Game. The defending Super Bowl champion Raiders were down 7-3 and in need of a defensive play as Denver sat poised at the Raider 2 yard line…and then:

Denver seized the momentum on the very next play as you saw taking a 14-3 lead. They went on to dethrone the Raiders 20-17 and move on to Super Bowl XII. The buzz after the game centered on the cruel twist of fate dealt the Raiders on the blown call when Tatum hit Lytle. Grumbling from the Raider organization was met with sentiment by NBC broadcaster Dick Enberg repeating clearly the refs blew the call.

The talk hadn’t died down two years later when another play altered the course of NFL history. We had a new rivalry make it to the national level between the perennial champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Oilers. Pittsburgh beat them in the 1978 AFC Championship 34-5. It was not even close. However in the ’79 AFC Championship Game they were embroiled in a dogfight. With the Steelers up 17-10 and the Oilers driving late in the 3rd quarter, Dan Pastorini lofted a pass for Mike Renfro when…

The argument to institute replay as an officiating tool went into overdrive as this play cast a pall over most of the time leading up to Super Bowl XIV and beyond. Yet it took 6 years before the NFL would vote replay in as an officiating tool. So going into the 1986 season how long was it before it had an affect. Try just 3 plays!! The defending champion Chicago Bears were hosting the Cleveland Browns in the opener when the 1st instant replay touchdown happened:

So Browns Safety Al Gross was the 1st NFL player to score a touchdown based on a decision by instant replay. In this instance it worked. When replay is concerning the spot of the ball, or whether a player was in-bounds before sliding out of bounds recovering a fumble, or whether a receiver had 2 feet in, replay is a critical tool for officiating crews to get it right. Yet when it comes to the catch itself replay has now become the problem.

Fast forward to the catch/non catch of Dez Bryant in the 2014 playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. In the waning moments down 26-21 and facing a 4th down, Romo lofted a pass toward Dez Bryant when apparently he caught the ball and it would be 1st and goal. Once the Packers challenged the play the controversy began.

What we received was a poor carrying out of the rule as it was written. This rule was adjusted after the 1999 NFC Championship Game when Bert Emanuel caught an apparent pass late in the game and the tip of the ball touched the ground. This was a diving play and the ball hitting the ground in the middle of the catch. We didn’t see that on the play with Bryant.

During Bryant’s catch, had he been in the middle of the field caught the ball and been hit after two steps, it would be a catch and fumble meaning he had possession. So now he catches the ball, rotates his body, cradles the football with one hand, takes several steps and dives for the goal line and the explanation was he hadn’t made a football move. This was and should have been ruled a catch once he took the two steps with no bobble of the football. Not the diving catch that the rule was written for.

This event altered the course of NFL history and forever doomed the legacy of Tony Romo and a team that could have made the Super Bowl. Yet we have to move on…

We have to quit with the Zapruder Film reenactment every time we need to review a catch with instant replay. The Chancellor of Football says we need to interpret the rules as players, coaches, and refs always have and get away from the Bob Costas wannabe lawyer types who muck this up every time a reception is discussed.

  • What is a catch? A forward pass thrown from one offensive player to another and the recipient possesses the ball.
  • A reception and possession of the ball takes place once the receiver secures it and takes two steps, goes out of bounds, or immediately tackled or touched down once their knee, elbow, or ass hits the ground.
  • Possession of the ball is securely controlling the ball with one hand or two.

That is it!! That is a catch and the rest should be left to the judgment of an official. Back during John Madden’s early years in the broadcast booth, NFL Director of Officiating Art McNally explained a Jerome Barkum touchdown by stating “One knee equals two feet.” Which translates to the play was over once the receiver was ruled down and in this instance he only had one knee in while sliding out of the endzone with a reception.

The NFL needs to get away from this stupid notion someone somewhere brought up about reviewing the receiver having possession after the play has already been called down or out of bounds. Possession the instant a play is whistled dead is over! Who cares if he bobbles it 11 feet out of bounds sliding into a table of gatorade?? Once we remove this excess from replay it will remain an effective tool. You don’t need a panel of 72″ screens and a committee to determine a catch!!

Dedicated to my late brother Michael Vincent Rojas if he were here we would still be arguing Bert Emanuel’s catch/no catch from the 1999 NFC Championship Game.

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Missing Rings: 1979 Houston Oilers – Luv Ya’ Blue

When the gun sounded to end Super Bowl L, much of the attention turned to Peyton Manning and his upcoming decision to continue playing or retire.  Pundits waxed philosophical on where Denver’s defensive performance placed them in history and Manning’s overall legacy. However a small contingent thought of Wade Phillips and the culmination of another legacy. That of the coaching family he hailed from and his father…the late Bum Phillips.

Coach Phillips and Eddie Biles giving instruction to standout linebacker Robert Brazile.

Coach Phillips and Eddie Biles giving instruction to standout linebacker Robert Brazile.

It’s a rich legacy with Bum Phillips and the late 70’s Houston Oilers. Where a father gave a young Wade his first NFL job in 1976 coaching the defensive line. Bum had arrived the year before to resurrect a moribund franchise that hadn’t made the postseason in nearly a decade. Aside from back to back AFL championships in 1960 & ’61, the team mired in mediocrity without any players of distinction.

In an era where most NFL coaches were still emulating the status quo fire and brimstone approach of a Vince Lombardi or a Don Shula, Phillips was more of a player’s coach. Opting for reasoning and taking more of a personable approach, Bum got to know his players and was known for having laid back practices.

Phillips was one of the first to employ the 3-4 defense as a full time tactic which the Miami Dolphins had made famous during their Super Bowl years in the early 70’s. Shula and Bill Arnsparger used the defense part time to maintain an edge when they were ahead. It was actually a variation of the old Oklahoma 5-2 of the 1950’s however the defensive ends were replaced with quicker outside linebackers.

To make it lethal the Oilers drafted Robert Brazile to man the weakside linebacker spot. He was a 5 time all pro between 1976 and 1980 along with his defensive rookie of the year award. He was the prototype size and speed of the 3-4 outside linebacker the Giants made famous 5 years later with Lawrence Taylor. He was the focal point to a defense that led the Oilers to a 10-4 record in ’75 where they narrowly missed the playoffs.

In ’75 QB Dan Pastorini and WR Ken Burrough each made the Pro Bowl. However over the next two years the offense bogged down without a serious running threat. They struck gold in 1978 when they drafted Heisman Award winning running back Earl Campbell out of Texas. Now they had a focal point on the offensive side of the ball. A one man wrecking ball that punished defenses while toting the rock 30 times a game. 

dan_pastorini_drew_brees_nflpa_08302011Having to look up in the AFC Central standings to the perennial champion Steelers, the Oilers seemed to be ready to make their move. They finished 2 games behind the Steelers in ’77, yet it looked like Pittsburgh had come back to the pack having failed to reach the AFC Championship for the first time in 4 years.

The NFL was abuzz with the exploits of Campbell, who was leading the league in rushing, and the state of Texas seemed to be gravitating to this new team on the block. Midway through the ’78 campaign, winners in 4 of their last 5 including a 24-17 win in Pittsburgh, the Oilers played their signature game of the era. A Monday Night match-up with Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins.

This Monday Night matchup would become the showcase where the Oilers proved they belonged among the NFL’s elite. Also it would solidify Earl Campbell’s chances to win rookie of the year honors. After all he came into this week 12 contest with 944 yards rushing.

In one of the transcendent games of the ’70’s the Oilers prevailed 35-30. Campbell became the first rookie to lead the NFL in rushing (1,450 yds) since Jim Brown in 1957. The Oilers finished 10-6 to make the playoffs as a wild card. There they beat the Dolphins in Miami 13-7 and beat New England 31-14 to make it to the AFC Championship Game. There they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers 34-5 who taught them how far they had yet to go.

Yet make no mistake… with the strides they made in 1978 it looked like ’79 would be their year.

The verve and spirit were still there the following season yet this team had the weight of expectation upon them. Campbell again led the league in rushing with 1,697 yards and 19 TDs. They stood toe to toe and slugged it out with the Steelers for supremacy of the AFC Central and wrested control with a 20-17 win in week 15. However a loss in the final week gave the Steelers (12-4) the division and the Oilers would have to go in as a wildcard at 11-5.

A shadow of doubt crept in as the Oilers were right back where they had been the season before. Except this time they would have to play the AFC Divisional against the high flying San Diego Chargers. In the wild card round they lost QB Pastorini, Campbell, and WR Burrough. Without their top passer, rusher and receiver they had to face the #5 defense to go along with San Diego’s #1 offense on the road. What would happen??

In The Chancellor of Football’s estimation, Oiler Safety Vernon Perry turned in the greatest defensive performance in NFL history. Perry wound up making 8 tackles while grabbing a playoff record 4 interceptions and blocking a field goal returning it 57 yards. The Oilers needed every one of these plays to escape with a 17-14 upset. One of the biggest in NFL playoff history.

Surprise! The Oilers would be headed to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship for the 2nd straight year. Unlike the ’78 game where the Oilers were overwhelmed playing in their 1st championship game, this one they were embroiled in a dog fight. With the Steelers up 17-10 and the Oilers driving late in the 3rd quarter, Dan Pastorini lofted a pass for Mike Renfro when…

Sentiment finally came full circle when the refs admitted to the blown call in private but the company line was towed publicly. On that day, a young Chancellor learned about momentum and why the ’79 Championship was tainted by the referee’s blown non call. The officials weren’t allowed to view instant replay in the stadium where we at home clearly saw Mike Renfro in. It lead to a rule change when six years later instant replay was instituted in the NFL.

However that was too late for the Oilers who fell 27-13 that day in which they were clearly cheated. It cast a pall on a day when it seemed as though the game wasn’t settled on the field.

To make that call even more painful, the Oilers never threatened for a Super Bowl again. The following season saw the Oilers deal away starting QB Dan Pastorini for the late Kenny Stabler in an attempt to “kick it in.” This was the adopted slogan for the 1980 season to finally kick the championship door open and make it to the Super Bowl.

Ironically it was Pastorini who won a Super Bowl ring as an injured member of the ’80 Oakland Raiders. In a twist of fate, their first postseason step was a 27-7 win over Stabler and the Oilers in the wildcard round.

It was the last hurrah as 3 losing seasons followed. Bum Phillips had been dismissed in the aftermath of the ’80 Wild Card loss to Oakland. The magic was gone and an era of “Luv ya’ blue” faded into lore. An improbable team with the unlikeliest of characters is still revered in a city where the Oilers left to become the Tennessee Titans, and a new Houston team occupies the city. However the heart of the city of Houston will forever remain with that team of the late 70’s.

“Luv ya’ blue” a legacy indeed…

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