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It did not take long for the NFL to leak the news that its Competition Committee, the arcane clot of high priests, mystics, owl-worshippers and coaches who decide the rules by which you are befuddled weekly, would study the feasibility of crowbarring a new exception to the list of can’t-be-reviewed plays.
That would be fumble recoveries that are clearly and easily correctable. Call it the NaVorro Bowman Asterisk, after the man who gave his anterior cruciate ligament so that other turnovers might be free.
That comes as small consolation to Bowman, of course, who still gets the surgery and the rehab and the doubts about what he might have lost Sunday in Seattle. It is slightly more heartwarming to 49er fans, who know that Bowman’s non-recovery recovery of the Jermaine Kearse fumble did not affect the result of the game.
But ultimately, even the Bowman Asterisk is part of the problem rather than the solution, because it adds one more layer of verbiage to a rulebook already gone mad, with no signs that anyone in the NFL is willing to address the greater truth:
That the game is ungovernable and borders on indecipherable, and what it actually needs in not new paragraphs but clear ones. Indeed, the NFL now has a game that is too fast for its corporate masters to oversee and its on-site judges to adjudicate, and it can no longer explain what the rules are or how its players can actually adhere to them. Ignore the Bowman fumble recovery, which Gene Steratore’s crew called correctly given the facts it had and the rules at its disposal. None of its members saw the Bowman recovery, and the rules say fumble recoveries cannot be reviewed. Ignore the other calls that were borderline, because the rules of permissible contact are essentially being changed on the fly by the league’s HR departments. And do remember that the right team won for the right reasons, so this isn't complaining about the outcome.
Face instead the fact that nobody inside or outside the game can explain what is legal or illegal any more, and that the rulebook is actually of less help than the on-field officials trying to make sense of the chaos around them. There is no provision for, “I know what I saw, but three different rules cover five different interpretations of what I just saw, so we’ll call it a false start.”
And none of the kneejerk suggestions for fixing the problem actually make any difference at all.
• Fulltime officials? Why? The game isn’t ungovernable because the officials don’t spend enough time on the job. It is ungovernable because in addition to being too fast, it is now being altered from above to reflect the new realities of brain trauma research, or more precisely, research that the NFL cannot control or explain away as solely the players’ fault. Being on the job all week isn’t going to change that.
• More officials? This would help, but how many would you need to cover the 22 players? Ten? Twelve? Twenty-two? Twenty-two flying around on Segways in search of the better angle? The Bowman call became clear only with the overhead view – should officials also be given hovercrafts, and what would that do to the league’s precious in-game experience?
• More accountability and punitive action? Sure, but firing officials would probably reveal the fact that their replacements would likely be worse rather than better. Unless you honestly believe that the current crop are keeping down an entire generation of better officials who are being suppressed in college, you cannot logically say there are better officials out there. Ask any college player, coach or fan, and see the answers you get. The college game has the same problems, only worse, because the talent pool is even shallower at that end.
• More replays? Fine, but at some point you have to acknowledge that the only proper amount of replay is total replay – every play, everywhere. Anything else is intellectually dishonest. And nobody wants universal replay because it would play havoc with the TV schedule, and the NFL is an entirely TV-driven medium, now and forever.
Plus, are you honestly and truly ready for a game run by robot overlords? Think about it for a second, maybe even two. Are you actually comfortable with that? And then are you good with uniforms covered with sensors that measure legal and illegal blows via PSI meter? When do you honestly believe that too much has finally been achieved?
No, I don’t know the answer either, but the game is heading that way inexorably and mercilessly, because the current state of affairs is becoming intolerable.
The simplified rulebook fix, frankly, may be the only way out, and we say “may” only because of the elephant in the room, which is that football in any state may simply beyond our ability to control any longer. Live with that post-apocalyptic view a minute and see if you don’t reassess curling.
Our own position is that the competition committee should allow officials to eject coaches for acting the twitchy jackass on a weekly basis. It doesn’t help the game necessarily, but Harbaugh is to sideline demeanor as Richard Sherman is to postgame soliloquies, and it is impossible for every call Harbaugh seizes up about to be incorrect. Jim, you’re 50. Act it, or suit up.
But hey, we’ll get the Bowman Asterisk this spring to cover then one play a year when a loose ball lands in a player’s lap in plain view. That’ll fix . . . well, nothing. But isn’t that par for the course with a sport that doesn't even know what it is legally allowed to permit any longer?