It was clear. It was decisive. It was an interception. It was game over.
Except it wasn’t.
From Pop Warner to high school, college to the pros, you preach to players that they need to overcome bad officiating. That they can’t worry about it. That they need to focus on what they can control. But to overcome horrible officiating, inept officiating, embarrassing officiating, and the kind of consistently unqualified officiating that has infected the NFL this season is an unfair ask of any team or player.
It’s not an excuse. It’s a fact. To see it any differently is to ignore the degenerative state of the replacement officiating that on Monday night in Seattle did the one thing that officiating should never do: It changed the outcome of a game that was clearly decided on the field. Instead of Green Bay winning 12-7, it lost 14-12.
By now, Packer fans have watched the play dozens of times. And the reps don’t make it any easier to stomach. With the ball dropping out of the sky, and a cluster of Seahawks and Packers players standing below, Seattle receiver Golden Tate gave a two-handed shove to Packers cornerback Sam Shields that knocked him to the ground and went airborne. As Tate jumped for the ball on the game’s final play, Packers backup safety M.D. Jennings elevated above him, grabbed the Russell Wilson Hail Mary with both hands and pulled it to his chest. Tate had his left hand on the ball and Jennings’ chest as they fell to the ground.
The back judge, who had a clear and unobstructed view of the play, ran over and lifted his arms in the air, crossing them over his head to signal the interception and touchback. But the side judge, who did not have a clear view of the play, also ran over. And seemingly taking his cue from the back judge who was raising his arms, and in an apparent effort to confirm what he anticipated was going to be called, the side judge lifted his arms into the air, as well. Except he signaled touchdown.
To make matters worse, in a shocking, mind-numbing case of “what the hell are you possibly looking at,” they reviewed the play and somehow upheld the ruling on the field. So, upon further review, they either still didn’t understand what they watched in excruciatingly slow motion with their own eyes or lacked the, let’s say, “intestinal fortitude” to reverse the call.
This was not a “simultaneous catch.” It wasn’t “dual possession.” This call did not require an especially deep or thorough knowledge of the NFL rule book. Two players went up, one caught the ball. Two players fell to the ground. One player pulled it away from the other one.
The “game-winning interception” has transcended sports. It’s become a topic in supermarket lines and CNN. Your grandma knows about it. Even former President Bill Clinton said it was an interception. But you don’t need to be a Rhodes Scholar to know that.
You knew it would happen. We all did. You just didn’t know when, and didn’t know it would be the Packers. The replacement refs cost a team the game. It’s the thing that everyone said would need to occur to be the catalyst to settle the ugly dispute between the NFL and the locked-out officials. Well, it happened. So, now what?
The NFL, with figurative salt in hand, poured out a statement lacking any shred of shame or common sense or much hope for a quick resolution. It stated that Tate, in fact, committed offensive pass interference on the game’s final play when he pushed down Shields. But, the play was still a touchdown due to a simultaneous catch.
Let’s all scream at our computers at the same time: “It wasn’t a simultaneous catch!”
Here’s the crux, courtesy of Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5. Pay special attention to the second sentence.
Simultaneous Catch. “If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.”
And Jennings clearly gained control first.
I don’t blame the replacement officials. Really. They’re doing their best, but they’re in over their head. Way over. This is on the league owners. And something has to give.
Make no mistake, the NFL’s offer to the officials is fair. NFL officials make an estimated $42,000 to $120,000 for roughly 16 days of work a year. This is on top of their normal job, which likely already includes a pension or retirement plan. So, officiating is a pretty nice gig. Not a bad part-time job. Most people would probably love the opportunity to give that a try (and they might not be noticeably worse than the replacements). If they want more money, better benefits and a retirement package, then make officiating a full-time job and raise the bar on a profession that even at its best endured constant scrutiny and faced weekly criticisms.
That said, we need the regular officials back. Immediately. And that Delorean from “Back to the Future” might help, too. Because there’s little chance that what happened Monday would’ve occurred with a seasoned, veteran NFL crew. It’s time for the league to bite the bullet. There is a long-term value on the integrity of the game of football that exceeds this labor negotiation. There is a price tag on the sanctity of “The Shield.” Commissioner Roger Goodell is the unpopular face of the league in this standoff, but it’s the 31 owners who don’t want to open up their wallets.
As for the owners of the 32nd team, Green Bay Packers fans, we’re ready to deal. Now.
Do nothing and, eventually, the NFL becomes akin to boxing, a once proud and popular sport that will subjectively crown a winner from a scorecard, at times in stark contrast to what you saw with your own eyes. That’s basically what happened on Monday night. On the flipside, you hope the regular officials have enough pride in their work, respect and love for the game, and disgust for the incompetent fill-in job of their replacements to be reasonable in their negotiations, and not use what just happened as a bargaining chip. Though as bargaining chips go, that’s a great one. Their worth to the game never has been more obvious or apparent.
In 30 years of watching football, I’ve seen some suspect officiating. I’ve seen some terrible calls. I’ve seen a ton of them in the past three weeks. But I’ve never, ever seen a call on the game’s final play that so clearly resulted in the wrong team winning the game. Is it the worst call in the 92-year history of the league? It’s up there. It is unquestionably the worst one that I’ve ever seen.
ESPN’s crew was beside itself. Jon Gruden, Trent Dilfer, Steve Young — coaches and players that know and love and understand the game — were stunned. They were disgusted. They were angry. They should be. You should be. Everyone not in a Seahawks uniform should be. But even the Seahawks should be wary, because it could happen to them.
Never mind the ridiculous calls and no calls leading up to that momentous guffaw … from the Tate push on Shields to the the pass interference call that went against Shields a drive earlier when Seattle receiver Sidney Rice was the clear offender. A roughing-the-passer call on Erik Walden that was borderline legit at best that negated a great sideline interception by rookie Jeron McMillian. A personal foul on Greg Jennings where he was shoved to the ground that was called as offsetting after Jennings jumped up and got into it with the defender. There were some questionable calls against the Seahawks to be sure, but none so glaring.
The spectacle at the end of the game took away from one of the most punishing and complete defensive performances you’ll ever see from a defensive line. Seattle’s front four destroyed the Packers’ offensive line in the first half, sacking Aaron Rodgers eight times. If Packers fans thought Green Bay got to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler a week earlier, this looked faster and more violent. Eight sacks felt more like 18 and four Seahawks defenders felt like a swarm. I’m not sure I’ve seen a quarterback abused this bad by a four-man line since Reggie White and Clyde Simmons ran roughshod over Troy Aikman during his rookie year more than 20 years ago.
The circus that ensued following Wilson’s “game-winning interception” was fitting given what led up to it. After both teams had headed to the locker room to either fume in disgust or celebrate their gift, they were forced to trot back out for a meaningless extra point … a play the officials somehow didn’t botch. Give the Packers credit for sending out 11 players, including M.D. Jennings. I would not have. Despite any fine or threat from team president Mark Murphy or Goodell himself.
There was little for the Packers to say after the game. Coach Mike McCarthy refused to address it. Rodgers quietly called it awful and said it’s the most bitter defeat he’s been associated with. Guard T.J. Lang tweeted, “Got (expletive) by the ref. Embarrassing. Thanks, NFL.” And in case you weren‘t sure, the expletive rhymes with “trucked.” Sometimes, expletives are more fitting than adjectives in describing this mess.
Green Bay didn’t play well in the Emerald City, to be sure. There’s some big misfiring in a supposedly high-octane offense that needs to be figured out fast. But they did enough to win this game. They made the halftime adjustments to keep Rodgers upright. Running back Cedric Benson finally got the yards Green Bay needed — including the 1-yard that got the Packers in the end zone. James Jones and Jermichael Finley held on to the ball when they needed to most. And on the final play, M.D. Jennings went up over Tate to bring a wild and furious and frustrating contest to an end.
I saw it. You saw it. ESPN saw it. Presidents and ex-Presidents saw it. Everybody saw it.
Well, almost everybody.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.