Who can we blame? Anybody but me

Friday, January 17, 2003

Second-guessing is our national pastime.

Next to that is finding someone to blame.

It's as true in sports as it is in business and politics. We are a nation of finger-pointers, Monday morning quarterbacks, whiners. Got a problem? It's somebody else's fault.

NFL officials are taking high-wattage heat these days. They're easy targets for coaches and fans who can't accept defeat graciously.

Bill Cowher looked as if he were about to bust blood vessels as he charged referee Ron Blum at the end of the Pittsburgh Steelers' overtime playoff loss at Tennessee.

Cowher insisted that a timeout had been called before Tennessee kicker Joe Nedney's game-winning field goal and complained that the penalty on Pittsburgh's Dewayne Washington for running into Nedney on his previous missed kick was "ludicrous."

The only thing ludicrous was Cowher's hysterical reaction.

"We had something taken away from us today," Cowher said, childishly implying officials cost his team the game.

On Tuesday, three days after the game, Cowher recanted -- a smidgen. The Steelers had plenty of chances to win the game and the last play did not make the difference, he said, making a painful stab at good sportsmanship. Cowher admitted that he didn't ask for the timeout in time before the kick but grumbled that he still didn't like the penalty.

Well, too bad.

Any way you look at it on a thousand replays, even conceding a bit of thespian flair by Nedney, Washington ran into the kicker and the Steelers deserved a penalty.

"We Wuz Robbed," read one of the headlines in New York when the Giants lost to the San Francisco 49ers a week earlier.

True, the league said, officials should have called a pass-interference penalty on the last play. But the Giants weren't robbed any more than the Steelers were. The Giants blew a huge lead and their chances at the end and had no one to blame but themselves. Giants coach Jim Fassel, to his credit, admitted as much.

Too many people, though, are jumping on the officials as if they were nincompoops or, worse, conspirators in fixing games.

If any scapegoating is in order, take a look at the convoluted rule book.

The rule on pass interference, for example, has four main parts, 17 subsections and five explanatory notes. On top of that, they're all open to judgment and interpretation.

No wonder the zebras hold long powwows on the field and the former players and coaches in the TV booth have trouble figuring out what the correct ruling should be. The networks have considered bringing an official into the booth to explain calls, but that might not help, either.

"That rule book is so complicated," Fox Sports president and executive producer Ed Goren said Wednesday. "Even having somebody in the booth is not necessarily foolproof without that individual knowing what's going on down on the field.

"Heck, even coaches don't necessarily know the rules. How many times has a coach thrown a red flag on a challenge, only to have a referee come by and say, 'Coach, pick that up. That call isn't challengeable."'

Troy Aikman should know the rules as well as anyone. Yet even the former Dallas quarterback and current Fox analyst can't always figure out what's going on. No wonder. Neither can the officials.

"We went to the officials' seminar (before) the season and ... they couldn't agree on the interpretation of the rules," Aikman said.

"We can't get an official to (come into the booth) because they're scared to death that their interpretation is going to be wrong and that they are not going to know the rule themselves."

NFL officials are banned from talking to the press during the season. They have to take the criticism without answering it. They are part-time employees -- lawyers or accountants or teachers in their real lives -- who work 50 hours a week in their NFL jobs, attending review sessions, conference calls, traveling between games.

They have to be fit enough to keep up with the rumbling herds of players on the field, durable enough to cope with the cold or snow or mud, sharp enough to keep track of the action and make split-second decisions, and thick-skinned enough to take all the boos and complaints.

The wonder is: Why would anyone want to do it?

Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, for one, thinks it's time to lay off the officials and stop dwelling on the controversies.

"I believe you get what you deserve in this league," Gruden says. "If you start worrying about the officials and become paranoid and all that, then good luck. Now, every once in a while there are a couple of guys that make me go take a couple extra Tylenol. But most of the time, I'm all right."

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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