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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Al Davis said he wanted a ring so nice that he wanted a Raider to be able to meet the Queen of England and not feel he had to take it off. Mission accomplished!! One of the unique features to every Raider championship ring is that Al Davis uses the AFL “A” and not the AFC “Block A” on the side. This was the bauble for winning Super Bowl XI on January 9, 1977 over the Minnesota Vikings 32-14.

superbowlxi3They finally clutched the prize, Madden, Stabler, Biletnikoff, Tatum, Hendricks, Matuszak, Sistrunk, Villapiano, Atkinson and Raider Nation.  What is strange is how the Raiders could have totally written sports history.  They played in 5 other conference championships before winning the Super Bowl in 1976.

That’s without talking about the “job” they got in the Immaculate Reception in the 1972 AFC Divisional playoff that would have put them in a SIXTH. I cornered Franco Harris in 1991 and tried to get him to exact the ball hit Fuqua and not Tatum and he wouldn’t do it!! sigh…yet I digress  After playing in Super Bowl II, the Raiders could have been in Super Bowls 3,4,5, 8-10, & 12. So this was the culmination of pushing to be the best over all those years.

imagesrYet stop and think about how history could have been written had they won those games.

  1. We wouldn’t have had Joe Namath’s guarantee in Super Bowl III
  2. The Raiders would have played the Vikings in Super Bowl IV, who was the original AFL team to be in Minnesota, until the NFL undercut the AFL by giving the owners of that territory an NFL franchise. This is ironically how the AFL got to Oakland in the first place.
  3. They would have stopped Johnny U. and the Colts from making the “Blunder Bowl” or Super Bowl V and could have been going for a threepeat. Had they won in 69 and 70 it would have made them the last AFL Champion as well as the first AFC Champion.
  4. They would have stopped the Dolphins from being a dynasty by keeping them from winning back to back Super Bowls. By the way, remember the undefeated 1972 Dolphins and their record 18 game winning streak?  Who did they lose to? The Raiders in early 1973 in a game played at Berkeley because the A’s were in the World Series. Footnote this with it was the Raiders who in the ’74 Divisional playoff, the “Sea of Hands” play stopped the Dolphins from going to 3 Super Bowls in a row…so this isn’t far-fetched folks.
  5. They would have stopped the Steelers dynasty from taking off (Super Bowls IX & X) and would have been crowned team of the 70’s by this time easily. Don’t start Steeler fans because these were some battles with the Raiders.
  6. They would have stopped the Broncos miracle ’77 season keeping them out of Super Bowl XII.

As for the team that always threw deep, I find it ironic that the Super Bowl XI MVP was a supposedly slow, couldn’t get deep, that left the NFL as the leading playoff touchdown in receptions and yards before he left in 1977 and that is Fred Biletnikoff.  My man was busy cookin’ the best that the NFL had to offer at CB.

It was understood when the game was on the line they went to the diminutive route runner from Florida St. Fred Biletnikoff had only 4 catches in Super Bowl XI, yet those catches set up 3 Super Bowl scores, and was the focus of why the Raiders blew out the Vikings in Super Bowl XI.

super-bowl-logo-1976He was a tremendous performer and the predecessor of Lester Hayes’ use of stickum in 1980.   He was the all time post season reception leader and yardage when he retired. Who broke his record? Cliff Branch…the man he showed the ropes on being an NFL receiver.  Jerry Rice eventually broke these records but you have to appreciate how things became the way they are.

Now Raider fans, you guys have to let go of the Immaculate Reception as I had to after several beers with Franco.  You did get jobbed and that ’75 AFC Championship Game icy field in Pittsburgh was fair when you guys played head games with the Chiefs and others about leaving the water on all night, hence the wet field. It’s just gamesmanship.

Well the idea the refs were out to get you guys disappeared in the ’76 divisional playoffs with the Sugar Bear Hamilton roughing the passer call on Stabler.  That call was among the worst ever!! Remember that call?? In the AFC Divisional playoff in 1976 you were losing to the Patriots 21-17 and were about to have to face a 4th and 17 with 1:38  left. Just seconds away from being upset when the flag came in…

So Stabler scored the winning touchdown with :10 seconds left and you were off to the AFC Championship. Big beneficiary of a very bad call. Hamilton hit Stabler under the arm…

OK then you guys got robbed in Denver on Lytle’s fumble in the 1977 AFC Championship game….ok maybe there is somethin’ to it.  The tuck rule with Tom Brady and the Patriots in 2001…damn you guys are on to something!! Just keep in mind you have had your share of calls also.

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The Soul of The Game: Jack Tatum

When it comes to the soul of the game, purists like our CEO thinks of games being dominated by fierce and aggressive defense. One player that embodied that spirit was Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders.

tatum.whiteXIWhen his name is brought up it’s hard to not think of the unfortunate paralysis injury suffered by Darryl Stingley in 1978. However he was much more than that.  During the 1970’s he made the Oakland Raiders defensive secondary the forceful equivalent of the Pittsburgh Steelers front four.


Jack Tatum, one of the NFL’s hardest hitters ever.

The Raiders weren’t a great defense from a statistical standpoint. In fact their highest ranking against the pass during the 1970’s was 5th in 1975, and 8th in 1973. As a matter of fact the year the Raiders went 13-1, won Super Bowl XI & the Raiders were 22nd against the pass. However for a record 5 straight years (1973-1977) the Raiders made it to the AFC Championship Game and Jack Tatum was a main reason why.

It was his physical style of play the Raiders fed off of and his mentality became that of the Oakland Raiders defense. Even SS George Atkinson, who began his career as a corner with the Raiders in the late 1960s’, had Jack’s playing style rub off and become his style of play. Nowhere in football history were there ever more cases of “alligator arms” than there were going across the middle when Jack Tatum was on patrol. His hits were like car collisions.

One of his most famous hits occurred in what has been called the single greatest touchdown in NFL history, The Immaculate Reception. The famous Franco Harris touchdown with :22 left in the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff the Steelers won 13-7. Initially on 4th and 10, Terry Bradshaw was trying to complete a pass to John “Frenchy” Fuqua when the ball and Tatum all arrived at the same time.

NFL rules at the time didn’t permit a pass to be tipped by a receiver then caught by another receiver. Had that occurred the play would be ruled incomplete and penalized for “illegal touching”. The problem was it was so close you couldn’t call what happened from the naked eye.

When the Steelers were awarded the touchdown it touched off a bitter 5 year playoff rivalry and controversy over that play rages to this day. Tatum had another famous hit that you saw in the first video when he knocked Sammy White of the Vikings out in Super Bowl XI. It was the fourth quarter and the Vikings were forced to pass and the Raiders knew it.

However, 11 months later in what would be John Madden’s last playoff game as coach of the Raiders, another Tatum hit was in the middle of another controversy. It was during the 3rd quarter of the 1977 AFC Championship with Oakland trailing the Denver Broncos 7-3. The Raiders had fumbled to put the Broncos in business inside the Raiders 20 yard line. Several plays later when it was 1st and goal with the momentum teetering toward the Denver sideline, Tatum comes through with a thunderous shot…


Another case of the Raiders coming up on the short end of the stick and was one of the reasons they lost 20-17. Although our CEO lived in Denver at the time and was cheering for the Broncos, he believes they were robbed. Rob Lytle clearly fumbled. Had they won they would have gone to Super Bowl XII with a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. They could have beat Dallas and would have been crowned a dynasty had they made it there. Jack Tatum would play two more years with the Raiders before joining the Houston Oilers in 1980.

He and quarterback Ken Stabler were traded to the Oilers to help Bum Phillips “Kick In The Door” which was the slogan used that year. Ironically they didn’t face Pittsburgh in the playoffs, instead they lost in Oakland to the Raiders in the 1980 AFC Wildcard Game 27-7. For his 10 year career, he did intercept 37 passes with a high of 7 in the lone year he played in Houston. Yet it was the fierce way he hit that brought Tatum his notoriety.

Epilogue: However fame and memory of his play has been purposely obscured by NFL Films selectively after the event where Darryl Stingley was paralyzed. For every fearsome defender that has come through the NFL, there are videos of these tough players, many of which we feature here, yet Tatum is a glaring omission. Contrary to popular belief he did try to see Darryl Stingley while he was in the hospital in Oakland but the family turned him away. John Madden chronicles it in one of his books. Former Ohio St teammate John Hicks said Stingley’s paralysis had an affect on Jack Tatum, saying he became a recluse.

Tatum would have looked sick in a black helmet.

Tatum would have looked sick in a black helmet.

He seemed to be be caught between the tough guy persona and the humanity that did lie within. He’s been quoted from his book They Call Me Assassin that “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault.” Trying to capitalize on his bad boy persona since that was what he had to go off of in future years. We don’t know what was said to Jack Tatum by the Stingley family that night in that hospital.

Yet defensive players using hyperbole to describe what they perceive as the perfect hit isn’t anything new. In the Soul of the Game article with Dick Butkus, he describes a scene from Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. Where he describes how a decapitated head rolls down the stairs and he liked to project those things happening (to his opponent) on the football field.

In other writings and videos we celebrate the over the top intensity and meanness of an Ed Sprinkle, a “Bulldog” Turner, a Wilber Marshall, a Hardy Brown, a Cliff Harris, a “Mean” Joe Greene, a “Mad Dog” Mike Curtis, or what about the comments and actions of a one Jack Lambert?? None of these men were asked to apologize for the way they played nor should they have to.

Well, neither should Jack Tatum. The question remains: Did  Jack Tatum handle the whole situation with Darryl Stingley the right way?? In my opinion he could have done more to make amends with him but it’s not up to me to be the complete judge on all that took place. Again we don’t know what was said between the Stingley family to him that fateful night. Understand I’m not trying to make the villain into the victim, but it’s high time that someone says something in Tatum’s defense. Quit treating him like a pariah, almost like he didn’t exist.

From THE Ohio State University, Jack Tatum!! RIP

From THE Ohio State University, Jack Tatum!! RIP

Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley, Todd Bell, Dennis Smith, Dennis Thurman, Leonard Smith and the generation of NFL Safeties that came onto the scene as he was retiring patterned much of their game after his. On July 27, 2010, Jack Tatum passed away, but the way he played lives on as the generation who saw him play share memories of him with grandchildren like a Paul Bunyan type. There isn’t a lot of footage on him so the stories have to be told of how he was such a hitter. Well he was an intimidating performer and definitely a Soul of the Game defender.

Dedicated to the memory of Jack Tatum (November 18, 1948 – July 27, 2010)

RIP Darryl Stingley (September 18, 1951 – April 5, 2007)

RIP Rob Lytle (November 12, 1954 – November 20, 2010)

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

The Immaculate Reception: Before There Were Hail Marys

Franco Harris going in for a touchdown with the Immaculate Reception

NFL Films had a video of the 100 greatest touchdowns in NFL history that came out in the 1990s which labeled Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception in the 1972 playoffs, as the greatest ever. It was a completely fair assessment.

It launched a Hall of Fame career for Franco,  launched the greatest NFL playoff rivalry of the Super Bowl era, and was the birth of one of the greatest dynasties sports has ever seen. Although the Raiders did get revenge in the 1973 playoffs, Al Davis and the Oakland faithful vehemently disagree with the referee’s ruling that day.

Coach John Madden has said on numerous occasions how he disagreed with the officials not signaling touchdown when the play was over. the refs had a conference first before ruling the touchdown stood that gave Pittsburgh a 13-6 lead with 5 seconds left. So what led to the animosity and fame of this touchdown??

Before the rule changes of 1978, a deflected forward pass could only be caught by an offensive player unless it was touched first by a defensive player. It couldn’t bounce from one offensive player to another like we have now with a Hail Mary. By the way, The Hail Mary is also a nickname for a famous last second touchdown in the 1975 playoff win by Dallas over Minnesota and not the creation of Tom Landry…yet I digress.  The Immaculate Reception had everything: drama, controversy, and extreme importance.  What started the controversy is the lingering question: Did the ball hit Oakland Raider Jack Tatum or Pittsburgh’s John “Frenchy” Fuqua before deflecting to Franco Harris?

Alright lets set it up for you: The Pittsburgh Steelers were experiencing their first real winning season in 39 years in 1972. They were powered on offense by a rookie running back from Penn St., Franco Harris. He had powered for 1,055 yards and 10 TDs to give the Steelers their first breakaway runner. He seemed to be the centerpiece for a team Chuck Noll had been building through the draft over the last 4 years. Pittsburgh had made the playoffs for the first time ever and on December 23, 1972 would host the Oakland Raiders in a AFC Divisional Playoff Game.

Meanwhile the Raiders had been mainstays in the postseason over the 6 previous seasons. They had made it to Super Bowl II before the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, and the 1968 and 1969 AFL Championship Games. After losing the first ever AFC Championship Game in 1970 to the Baltimore Colts, they were a team in transition and missed the playoffs in 1971. However with an infusion of new Raiders to put the team in the winner’s circle again, they won the AFC West and were back in ’72 and after that elusive first Super Bowl championship. First they had to go to Pittsburgh….

On a cold, dark and dreary day these two teams met and slugged it out in one of the most physical games of the era. We had two smothering defenses pounding the offenses into the ground and late in the 4th quarter the Steelers had a 6-0 lead. Desperate for some offense, John Madden inserted a young, mobile Kenny Stabler in for an anemic Darryle Lamonica which produced immediate results. On a last second desperation drive, the Raiders came scrambling downfield with their young QB in his first significant action in an NFL playoff game.

At the Steelers 30 with less than 1:30 to go, Stabler avoided the Steel Curtain, took off and scored on a 30 yard TD run to give the Raiders their first lead of the game 7-6.  “The Snake” had done it!! A hero was born!! There was bedlam on the Oakland sideline and with 1:13 to go began to make reservations for they would host the AFC Championship Game against the undefeated Miami Dolphins.

A confident Raider defense took the field expecting to thwart the Steelers final offensive attempt. After three failed passing attempts the Steelers were faced with a 4th and 10 from their own 40 yard line with :22 left in the game. The Raider defense had played a defensive masterpiece on the road. One more play and it was on to face the Dolphins. They hadn’t given up a touchdown all day…what could possibly happen?? Terry Bradshaw dropped back, this was the Steelers last chance, he scrambled to the right to avoid the rush and as two Raiders converged…Bradshaw stood his ground and heaved one down the middle to an open “Frenchy” Fuqua. However the late Jack Tatum was closing on the spot where Frenchy reached up to make the catch and….

A bloody playoff rivalry was born and from 1972-1976 these teams met every year in the playoffs. The Raiders gained some revenge in 1973 with a 33-14 thrashing. Then Pittsburgh turned the tables winning the 1974 and ’75 AFC Championships over Oakland before winning Super Bowls IX and X. Then when the Steelers were going for a three-peat, ran into a 13-1 Oakland team that defeated them 24-7, on their way to their first Super Bowl win in the 11th edition over the Vikings. It all started with the ’72 playoffs and The Immaculate Reception.

Tatum hitting the ball and Fuqua.

Tatum hitting the ball and Fuqua.

In Columbus Ohio in Winter 1991, I had the good fortune of running into Franco Harris and James Lofton who were there for the Archie Griffin Tennis Classic I believe. Anyway, sitting at the bar and prying him with beer I could not get Franco to admit the ball had bounced off Frenchy Fuqua and therefore should have been incomplete. “Come on, its just us sitting in a bar. Who would know?” I kept prodding him. Lofton was just laughing his ass off because Franco would just grin and shake his head every time I asked him.

Franco grabbing the ball just inches from the turf a second later.

Franco grabbing the ball just inches from the turf a second later.

It was cool talking football with him and for the record… I believe the ball bounced off of the back of Fuqua’s helmet.  Follow the replay and you’ll see Fuqua flash in front of Tatum who the ball was headed for. If Tatum was in front of Fuqua, he would have put out his hands to knock the ball down, not brace for impact.  When was the last time you saw a football hit someone on the shoulder pads and bounce 15 yards (45 feet) away??  Lets have it ….What say you?? Did the ball bounce off of Frenchy Fuqua or Jack Tatum??

Epilogue: My initial thought of the ball bouncing off Fuqua, maintained for decades, I have changed my mind. After blowing it up and slowing the footage down, you can see the ball move past Fuqua and hit somewhere on Jack Tatum’s right shoulder / chest. I magnified the footage and slowed it frame by frame. It’s still the greatest play in the history of the NFL and I know the debate will rage on.

frenchyThanks for reading and please share the article.