The National Football League is America's passion. It dominates the Top 10 of Nielsen television ratings, with estimates of 180 million people watching part of a game last week. Whether they are fantasy fanatics, bettors or otherwise, this is our collective obsession. This was the marriage made in heaven for contemporary appetites for quick bursts of action in tightly contained segments, made for television and every platform of content supply.
But this pacing and immediacy are being severely impacted by endless instant replays and late calls. And the sport is starting to drag.
Scoring plays carry a thrilling ending. There is a buildup and development to a long pass pass play, a dramatic return or a brutal struggle by a runner to score. The player dives over a pilon or breaks free into the end zone and the in-stadium crowd and television viewers erupt in exultation or frustration. It is a moment of extreme excitement that separates the sport from others.
But not anymore.
Every touchdown is reviewed by a team of supervisors upstairs in the stadium. None of the process is visible on the screen or in person. There is an endless and boring delay. The excitement is replaced by uncertainty. And then comes the announcement: "Upon further review" ... it's disconnected to the play and anti-climatic. This destroys the immediacy inherent in every scoring play. Zzzzzzzzzzz. These delays give defenses a subtle a edge over offenses. They can break the rhythm of a quarterback's play and destroy momentum while giving the defense extra time to rest.
Turnovers are impactful moments in NFL games. A frenetic scramble for a fumbled football is untangled to reveal which player and which team has recovered.
Since turnovers can completely alter momentum and the course of a game, they lead to collective reaction. A key interception is exciting. Not any more. The play is reviewed. Young men turn old, autumn turns to winter, and still there is no decision. Boring. And virtually every pass reception or incompletion seems to engender an interference call. On pass play after pass play, either the wide receiver or the defensive back seems unable to conform to the standard of legal conduct and flag after flag after flag ensues. This destroys the immediacy and flow of most pass plays. It is impossible for a fan to display emotion without the referee altering the result. There is no certainty. Zzzzzzzzz.
The action on a NFL field is largely subject to the head coach's perogative to challenge a play. Second after second, minute after minute the replay process slugs along and most calls on the field end up being confirmed. Why do we have highly-trained, experienced officials on the field to make calls on the field at all?
If their judgments are going to be reviewed non-stop, what was all the controversy about the ineptitude of replacement referees? If play after play is subject to review, we can have fans volunteer as officials, no matter how many times they blow a call it will not matter since boring reviews have replaced real football action and pacing. Who ever guaranteed that football would resemble slide rule or adding machine exactitude? A certain number of questionable calls occur in every team sport. It is desirable to minimize these officiating errors, especially if they alter a game result, but even replays produce debatable decisions. This will always occur as long as fallible humans are evaluating film through imperfect human perception. Every behavioral experiment in observation of identifical events shows that honest people have different perceptions of what they see. Fans and players have always complained about but tolerated occasional bad calls as "part of the game." When the urgency and immediacy of fan experience becomes replaced with uncertainty, doubt and enervating delay -- it is time to take a new look at these rules changes.
The games are becoming longer, and the additional time adds nothing to the fan experience. Week 3 in 2011 saw an average game time of 3 hours, 11 minutes. Week 3 in 2012 had games that averaged 3 hours, 23 minutes. The longer games are not a one-season aberration. Games in 2011 were longer than games in 2010, and 2012 was slower.
The NFL adjusted halftime length and time between plays some years ago because it feared the games were running too long. Replays have resulted in slower game times and pacing. Fans accept the commercial breaks and use them as a time to visit the bathroom or kitchen or debate past plays. When thrilling action is replaced by interminable delays and the NFL pacing is replacing by snores, it is time for a instant "review" of the use of instant replay.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @SteinbergSports.
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