- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

Yes, NFL fans behaved abominably in Cleveland and New Orleans over the weekend. By all means send them to bed without their "SportsCenter." But let's not lay all the blame on them, easy though it may be.
For starters, Monday night's game at the Superdome took 3 hours, 39 minutes to complete and didn't even go into overtime. That's about 39 minutes longer than the league deems desirable, 39 minutes longer for the yahoos and the David Dukies to get liquored up. Think that might have contributed to the scene in the fourth quarter, when the crowd, responding to the 16th penalty of the evening against the home team (one off the club record), bombarded the field with plastic beer bottles and other recyclables?
I'm not trying to pull a Carmen Policy here and make excuses for what the fans did. I'm just trying to get at the root of the problem, which is more than just the atavistic urges of the football set. What's truly comical is that clubs do everything possible to inflame the passions of the crowd piping in loud, raucous music, using the P.A. system to lead the cheers and, of course, keeping the taps flowing and then they act surprised when some of the paying customers get a little carried away.
One of the more interesting developments in pro football in recent years is that the home-field advantage is shrinking. That's right, as the volume of noise has risen inside stadiums, the home team's winning percentage has sunk. I keep waiting for owners to recognize this and get back to focusing on the game (in all its splendor) instead of the sideshow (in all its tawdriness). Maybe by the next millennium.
Meanwhile, the men in the striped shirts aren't helping the situation much. In yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, NFL sage Ira Miller listed five mistakes the officiating crew made in the last minute of the Browns-Jaguars game everything from missing the call on the fourth-down pass by Cleveland (it should have been ruled incomplete) to reviewing the play after another play had been run (a definite no-no) to declaring the contest over with 48 seconds remaining (something only the commissioner has the power to do).
It was the kind of thing you'd expect of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo, not a group of officials whose salaries will double in the next few years because they're just so darn good.
Let's face it, the zebras have been a little off their game this season. They were locked out during training camp, you may recall, and didn't get back to work until Week 2. That's a lot of time to miss for a player, an official, anybody.
Earlier this month, Phil Luckett yup, our old friend Phil collided with the Saints' Joe Horn and broke up what would have been a 54-yard touchdown pass. This past Sunday, another ref came dangerously close to tripping up a runner en route to the end zone. (He had to hit the dirt to avoid a collision.) Two such episodes in the same month? It's enough to make you nostalgic for the replacement officials.
It's also enough to make you wonder if the regular officials' sudden wealth isn't affecting their performance, if they haven't become a little more slovenly in their work habits. After all, we see athletes go into cruise control all the time after they've gotten the big money. What makes zebras any different? I mean, they're only human.
Wait, that didn't come out right.
We can only hope this is a temporary condition, that soon enough the refs will go back to being invisible except for the occasional Music City Miracle, that is. The last thing you want is for them to become like baseball umpires, each with his own strike zone and acting like he's the Chief Justice.
And yet, that's kind of what happened in Cleveland. Referee Terry McAulay admittedly new to the job unilaterally put an end to the game after fans pelted his crew and Jacksonville players with debris. Fortunately, Paul Tagliabue told the various parties to get back on the field and finish the last 48 seconds. (That's what's great about football. They always play the bottom of the ninth.)
I'm reminded of a comment Curly Lambeau once made. "You can talk about great players starring and doing sensational things on the field," he said, "but poor officials can also make football history."
They certainly made a muck of things at Cleveland Browns Stadium. And with the playoffs just around the corner, well, what other horrors await us?

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