Can the Broncos get quality quarterback play from Bubby Brister or Brian Griese? Do the Jaguars have enough defense to get to the Super Bowl? Will the Vikings' dominating offense pick up where it left off last season?
Those are several of the major questions on the NFL's table as another season kicks off this weekend. But every question pales next to the gigantic one everyone was asking during the exhibition season:
What, exactly, are the referees watching in those instant replay booths on the sideline?
Are they watching the appropriate replays? Or, say, something else usually viewed in a darkened booth?
Are they using modern technology to check out every available angle of the debated call? Or, like so many fans, are they using modern technology to check out the cheerleaders?
Because the new replay system didn't exactly hum like a tuned Ferrari during the exhibition season.
Oh, sure, league officials already have all kinds of statistics supposedly showing how well the system is working. But who are they kidding?
It seemed as if every bad call that deserved to be overturned was upheld during the exhibition season, and every good call that was challenged was overturned.
And, even worse, a process that was supposed to last a maximum of 90 seconds usually lasted somewhere between four minutes and the time it takes to barbecue a chicken.
Other than that, everything was perfect.
Sure, it's a new system and teams were just playing practice games, so kinks and bugs were expected. That's why the NFL has an exhibition season, to smooth out such rough spots.
(Actually, the NFL has an exhibition season so teams can charge regular-season prices for meaningless games, but that's another story.)
But the system is going to have to improve in a hurry to effect the desired change of eliminating critical bad calls.
In other words, the officials had better stop sending e-mails to each other or downloading off-color files off the Internet or doing whatever they're doing behind those curtains, and start tending to business.
If you recall, the system was put in place in the off-season because there were so many blown calls last season that the league felt compelled to act before a playoff game or even a Super Bowl was decided by an official getting one wrong.
After a debate, the league approved a typically incomprehensible system, supposedly superior to the one mothballed after the 1991 season. Remember that one? Challenged calls were sent to a replay judge in a booth on the press box level. The judge was usually a long-retired official who couldn't even program a VCR. You could order and eat a delivery pizza by the time a decision was made.
The new system still has people in booths upstairs, including one with the Orwellian job title of "communicator." But they are there only to feed reviews to the head official on the field, who makes the final calls after studying a replay monitor behind one of the team benches.
If you haven't seen the process unfold, you're missing a scene as bizarre as any the NFL has offered, which is saying something. After a coach challenges a call -- risking a timeout if he's proved wrong -- the official leaves a field of 350-pound players, heads for the sideline and ducks behind a dainty, little curtain to check out, well, goodness know what.
Somewhere, Chuck Bednarik, the last of the two-way players, is throwing a brick through a TV.
The official ends up looking just like the Wizard in the climactic scene from the "Wizard of Oz," where Toto pulls back the curtain and we see the supposedly intimidating Wizard as just a normal guy.
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" the Wizard roars, trying to stay in character.
Unless replay gets itself together in the coming weeks, we'll all be shouting the same thing by November -- "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"
There are things the league could do to tweak the system and make it more interesting and effective. Take away the curtain, for instance. Let's see what the officials are watching in there. Inquiring minds want to know.
As a matter of fact, let's have a whole TV channel devoted to live stadium feeds of challenged NFL calls -- The Replay Channel, brought to you by your local eye-wear specialists. With Regis and Kathie Lee as hosts.
What would you rather watch, that or C-Span?
The league also could make officials sit in a penalty box on the sideline if the process takes longer than 90 seconds, as it often does. That's two minutes without pay for slothfulness! Things would speed up, for sure.
And, hey, why not take the right to challenge a call away from the coaches and give it to the fans, the ones who spend the most time debating calls, anyway.
If the home team's fans vote to challenge a call and the officials are proved wrong, the fans get a free beer.
And if the fans vote to challenge a call and get it wrong, beer sales at the stadium are cut off.
Talk about high stakes.
But that's not going to happen, of course. Nothing is going to change. The NFL is convinced it's gotten replay right this time.
We'll see about that.
But either way, the new curtains sure are pretty.
Assistant Managing Editor: Molly Dunham
Executive Sports Editor: Sam Davis
Section Editor: Steve Marcus
Copy Chief: Lou Cortina
Copy Editor: Ray Frager
Writers: John Eisenberg, Jamison Hensley, Gary Lambrecht, Ken Murray, Mike Preston, Ken Rosenthal, Vito Stellino
Pub Date: 9/10/99