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The Jesse James overturned TD: When instant replay goes too far

When the idea of instant replay was first thought of in the 1970's, I'll bet the NFL didn't have the Jesse James play against the Patriots in mind.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I know what you're going to say, "Do we have to keep talking about this Jesse James play? Can't we just focus on the Texans?"

You can, but I'm still stuck in the past.

I mean, hello, the biggest postseason seed-shifting play of the year.

The Steelers could have been playing in-front of 68,000 Terrible Towel-waving maniacs at Heinz Field in a presumptive rematch against the Patriots with the AFC title on the line five weeks from now, had the James' touchdown not been overturned right before a stunned audience of 68,000 Terrible Towel-waving maniacs at Heinz Field just last Sunday.

Instead, not only will Pittsburgh likely have to travel to Gillette Stadium in a presumptive rematch against New England with the AFC title on the line five weeks from now, Patriots fans actually had the nerve to walk on the Terrible Towel on their return flight to Boston following Sunday's game.

So, yes, we do have to keep talking about this Jesse James play (or, at least, I do).

In case you didn't know, instant replay reviews have now become about as synonymous with televised sports as mom is with apple pie.

No matter how much you might want to get rid of it, the fact is, with just about every meaningful professional and collegiate sport being played in front of multiple cameras these days, instant replay isn't going anywhere.

And rightfully so.

You want to "get it right," as they say. You want to prevent totally egregious missed calls, like the one that occurred at first base late in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, from perhaps changing the course of championship history.

Or, sticking with football, you want to prevent the kind of missed call that could have potentially affected the 1979 AFC Championship game played at old Three Rivers Stadium between those dynastic Pittsburgh Steelers, and their old AFC Central Division rivals, the Houston Oilers.

With Houston trailing by a touchdown late in the third quarter, quarterback Dan Pastorini dropped back from the Steelers 7-yard line and lofted a quick fade pass in the direction of receiver Mike Renfro, who appeared to get both feet in bounds with ball-in-hand, a play that, upon further review, should have tied the game at 17.

Unfortunately for the Oilers, there wasn't an official review of the play, because replay reviews of any kind didn't exist during the 1979 NFL season. But, thanks to NBC, folks all around the country got to see for themselves that the officials missed something quite obvious, a play that could have been changed had they been afforded the opportunity to examine it a second time.

You perhaps can't blame the official closest to the play for missing the call. After all, we're talking about highly-skilled athletes playing a sport at break-neck speed and at its highest level.

Some say the genesis of replay review was the Renfro play, and seven years later, the NFL adopted a form of it, one that lasted through the early-90's, before it was done away with.

But, again, cameras have remained a part of the football world, as have instant replay reviews once the league introduced a revamped version of them in 1999.

To reiterate, you want to get the calls right, and you want to make sure the outcomes of games aren't altered because an official was out of position or simply couldn't see a play unfold clearly.

I'm pretty much in favor of instant replay remaining part of the NFL (and sports, in general), simply because I can't imagine the crap-storm that would be social media if an obvious mistake by an official couldn't be examined a second time and corrected.

But do you really think the NFL had the James play in-mind when it first envisioned implementing a replay system? Do you think something as confusing and, quite frankly, social media crap-storm-inducing as the catch rule would ever grow out of a replay review system?

It's one thing to review whether or not a receiver dropped a pass; it's quite another to review whether or not he completed the catch (or survived the ground).

And believe me, there’s a bigger difference than you think.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the NFL's catch rule is perhaps the lone rule in all of sports that truly insults the intelligence of fans. Why? Because it often doesn't pass the eye test.

I know a catch when I see one. You know a catch when you see one.

Same holds true for a drop.

All you need to know about the James play that was initially ruled a touchdown with 28 seconds left and would most likely have given Pittsburgh a 31-27 victory and total control of the AFC's top seed with two weeks to go in the regular season, was that Jim Nantz, CBS' top play-by-play man, and Tony Romo, its newly opened treasure of a color commentator, watched several different angles before it even occurred to them that it might be overturned—and even then, Romo didn't really catch what the officials were reviewing until it seemed like minutes later.

Again, do you really think instant replay was meant for the James play?

Do you really think the NFL initially wanted its officials to review such critical plays with a fine-tooth comb?

The problem is the NFL has turned a reception into a black or white issue and has totally taken the judgment away from the officials on the field.

If I know a catch when I see one, and you know a catch when you see one, doesn't it stand to reason a trained NFL official would know one as well?

Sure, continue to review whether or not a receiver caught a pass, but can't we just get away from the absolutes of, "Well, he didn't complete the catch, so it's not a catch" aspect of it?

Let the official reviewing the play use his own judgment, and not just boil it down to whether or not the ball made contact with the turf or moved a little after the receiver was taken to or dove to the ground.

The NFL has no problem allowing officials to use their own judgment on potentially game-altering penalties such as pass-interference or helmet-to-helmet hits, but it won't allow them to make the same judgment on receptions.

Why are they even out there, then?

Anyway, in my lifetime, I've gone from witnessing childhood highlights of the Cowboys' Butch Johnson being awarded a Super Bowl-altering touchdown that clearly didn't pass the eye test, to an adulthood low-light of James being stripped of a regular season-altering one that did.

All as the result of over-steering in the name of "getting it right."

You might say I'm only whining and crying because I'm a Steelers fan.

You're damned right I am; you would be too if it happened to your team.

And if you haven't already, you'll likely be on the demoralizing end of this totally perverted rule at some point in the future.

Finally, when you have people saying things like, "Well, it's a stupid rule, but the officials got it right," your league has a problem.

Upon further review, the NFL will continue to have a problem if it doesn't soon allow its officials to use their own judgment to determine whether or not someone caught a football.