By In Stuff

The Human Element

At this point, you might know all about my various mixed feelings about instant replay in football — I’ve written about it enough. The good parts of instant replay are obvious and decisive — the NFL is using the best technology to get calls right more often. And there’s simply no way around that sort of precision in today’s game. We need it. Replay overturns terrible calls and clarifies close ones. Yes, we need it.

Now, coaches and teams are not powerless against a blown call (unless they’ve wasted their challenges, which happens). Sure, fans can and do still feel cheated by referees — for questionable holding calls, dubious pass interference no calls, etc. — but we can at least take solace in knowing the league is doing the best it can to fix mistakes. During the Chiefs-Chargers game Monday night, for instance, there was a punt that the Chargers were trying to down on the 1-yard line. Two different San Diego players were pretty clearly in the end zone while touching the ball. It was obvious in live action that the ball had to come back to the 20. But the official, in what seemed a momentary haze, placed the ball on the 1. That sort of bizarrely bad call doesn’t stand in NFL games anymore, and that’s simply worth whatever price. You can’t get the basic calls — in or out of bounds, fumble or no fumble, cross the goal line or no — obviously wrong, not in America’s most popular league.

The negative side, at least for me, has always been more nebulous and imprecise. I don’t like the way instant replay changes the flow of the game. I don’t enjoy how much of pro football has become legal wrangling — get a decision and then wade through the appeal process. I don’t like the conditional aspects of cheering for a big play and then having to wait and see if it stands up. But we’ve all gotten used to it, and again I don’t think we really have much choice. When there’s more precise and better technology, you have to use it. That’s just reality. That’s why I believe baseball can hold out for a while, but sooner or later replay will become a bigger part of the game. You can’t keep getting calls wrong when there’s a way to get those same calls right.

One thing I will say, though, is I’ve never quite followed when people say: “But replay takes out the human element of the game.” Well, I followed to a point … I had a certain idea in my mind of what this means. I’ve always thought wanting the human element involved means having real people make calls. Why? Many of us don’t want our games officiated or umpired by robots. It’s visceral. Also many of us want the rules administered with some level of common sense, the stuff that goes beyond replay and machines.

For instance, there’s the check swing rule in baseball. The rule has been handled differently through the years … I can remember when the accepted rule seemed to be that a batter had to “break his wrists” for a checked swing to be a strike. Then the rule seemed to be that the bat had to cross home plate for it to be a strike, or the head of the bat had to go past the foul line. There is none of this in the rulebook, however. The rulebook merely says that the ball is called a strike if it is “struck at by the batter and is missed.” That’s it. And so now, best I can tell, the interpretation of the rule involves intent — did the batter intend to swing at the ball and miss it. If so, it’s a strike. Even though this is more nebulous — we can’t really KNOW anyone’s intentions — I actually like it better than some hard and fast rule. Some batters are strong enough to hold back clear swing attempts. Other batters kind of wave the bat but do not appear to be trying to swing. This is how I viewed human element in baseball. Let the umpire decide: Was he attempting to swing? Was he not attempting to swing? They’ll get it right sometimes, wrong sometimes, but I like the umpires making that decision. That’s what I have long considered human element.

But this weekend, it occurred to me that actually there’s a whole other human element issue that I had never quite considered before. This happened at the end of the Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions game. You will remember the play: The Lions were down 19-14 in the final minute when Calvin Johnson caught what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown pass. The way it looked live and in color was that Johnson caught the ball, got both feet down, crossed the goal line, controlled the ball in one hand, went to the ground, and when he rolled over the ball kind of popped out. Then he started celebrating. That’s how it looked on replay too. The officials ruled that the pass was not complete, that he did not go all the way through the catching process or some such thing.

The question here whether or not the play was called right — it absolutely may have been called right. Jim Schwartz, the Lions coach, seemed to think it was called right, or at least was not called wrong. He handled the call with dignity — he is not about to blame the officials for a loss, and I respect that immensely. I think that’s a winning strategy* — controlling what you can control, not blaming others for your losses, moving on from disappointment.

*This doesn’t exactly connect — and it probably isn’t worth the words I’m about to give it. But I’m going to write it anyway because it’s been bugging me. I don’t know if you saw the Chiefs-Chargers game late Monday night, but if you did you will remember this play: The Chiefs were leading 21-7 when they blew a coverage and allowed San Diego receiver Legedu Naanee to break wide open down the field. I mean WIDE open. Nobody within 20 yards. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers saw Naanee, hit him with a pass, and Naanee scored the touchdown.

Only, he didn’t just score the touchdown … he purposely slowed down, almost came to a stop, like he wanted to walk into the end zone. And then, apparently realizing that he could showboat his way into football disaster, sped up just enough to beat a charging Chiefs defender into the end zone. It was a show-off move, a laugh-in-the-face kind of move, a hold-out-the-ball-and-shout-“You stink” kind of move. The Chiefs defender gave Naanee a little shove at the end zone and neither of the announcers talked about it (probably because they were too busy talking about the greatness of Philip Rivers and Matt Cassel — wow, NFL announcers LOVE quarterbacks).

Anyway: I have a pretty high tolerance for showboat moves in the NFL. It’s like my friend Michael MacCambridge says — these guys take extreme punishment, they wreck their bodies for money and glory and our entertainment, they really are something close to modern gladiators, as cliche as that has become. And so if they want to celebrate themselves by making exaggerated first down gestures or by flexing when they make a great defensive play or by sounding their barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world when they score touchdowns, hey, I’m not saying I LOVE it. I’m not saying I don’t reserve special admiration for the Barry Sanders’ move of flipping the touchdown ball to the official. But I’m not bothered by it. Football is a game played best with emotion, with joy, with ferocity, and I can understand and even appreciate the excess.

But this Naanee Naanee Boo Boo movie seemed different to me. One, it was taunting and therefore it was low end. Two, who is Legedu Naanee? The guy had started one game and scored two NFL touchdowns in his three-year NFL career. He can be casual about scoring touchdowns? My sense is he was only playing because Vincent Jackson is holding out in the first place. Three, he didn’t do anything all that great for him to be taunting anyone in the first place. He ran straight down the field, the Chiefs forgot to cover him — probably because he’s Legedu Naanee — and he caught a pass with nobody around him. Four, the Chargers were losing by a touchdown even AFTER he scored. Five, he wasn’t celebrating the touchdown — it wasn’t emotional. It was like he was ANTI-celebrating the touchdown, like it was no big deal.

I’m not saying it’s impossible or even improbable to win playing that kind of football. I’m not saying that what he did was some sort of great sin either. As one Twitter responder said: “Why does it matter?” In the end, Naanee scored the touchdown. It counts for the same number of points as if he had actually run it out. It SHOULD count for the same number of points. But it really does seem to me that moments like that reveal something about people and coaches and teams. You can win playing that way. But I don’t think that’s how winners play.

Anyway, the Calvin Johnson call may have been technically right (and I should add for clarification that it was called that way on the field — NOT on replay). But the way I saw it, the call was certainly wrong. That is: Johnson caught the ball. It would have been a catch in 1950 and it would have been a catch in 1970 and it would have been a catch in 1990. It would have been a catch during recess, and it would have been a catch in the CFL and it would have been a catch in college football, and it would have been a catch in electric football. It would have been a catch because the eyes tell you that he caught the ball.

That, I think, is the human element.

And maybe we ARE losing that. Maybe that is a by-product of instant replay. In many ways we don’t look at plays anymore. No, we break plays down into molecules. We run the play back and forth, back and forth, magnify it 20 times its normal size, then sharpen the focus. We use high definition graphics to give us another viewpoint. We go deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper in an effort get things “right,” and maybe we do that so intently that eventually a wide receiver makes what looks to everyone like a clear catch and the officials call it incomplete because of a long, baffling and illogical series of rules that were devised because we now have the technology to enforce them.

Back to baseball for a second: We have come to see the strike zone as a box — a very specific sized box that they often show in graphic form on TV. But is what the strike zone really is? A box? I thought a called strike was supposed to be, as it was originally put by Doc Adams in 1858, “a ball legally delivered by the pitcher within the legitimate reach of the bat.” I thought that was the whole point of why we have a strike zone in the first place, so that pitchers will throw the ball where hitters can legitimately hit them. Yes, of course, there must be dimensions, there must be rules, and they should be specific. But it strikes me that by playing with the rules we sometimes lose the intent. By messing with the specifics, we sometimes lose the overall purpose. If a pitch is half-an inch outside the replay box and the umpire calls it a strike, who is really right? The replay might technically be right, but that doesn’t mean the ball wasn’t within legitimate reach of the hitter.

That’s what I think happened with Calvin Johnson (and with numerous other plays, including that non-catch in the Tampa Bay-St. Louis championship game back in 2000, the tuck call, etc). Replay puts more emphasis on the technicalities and less emphasis on the big picture. Because of this attention to even the minutest detail, replay helps us get a lot more calls right. But because of that attention to minute details, I think replay sometimes spurs us to get the calls wrong now and again too.

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