[Editor's note: In the wake of the collective bargaining agreement this week, our coverage switched off of the events on the field. To complete the record, we are posting some of our analysis from earlier in the week.]
One talking point making the rounds prior to the imminent agreement between the NFL and the locked out officials is that an experienced crew would’ve ruled the Fail Mary, or Inaccurate Reception, as some are calling it, the same way the replacements did. League apologists are even using it as the basis of an argument that the play, the game, and the 3 weeks’ worth of amateur officiating have been blown out of proportion, that the same types of mistakes are made by the professional zebras, and that the replacements are being placed under unfair scrutiny. Simply put, these arguments have no merit.
Mechanics of the play. In these alternate-universe Bizarro worlds, a crew led by Ed Hochuli, Gene Steretore, or Bill Leavy were just as likely to botch the call as Wayne Elliot’s crew. That somehow, a side judge and back judge with years of experience and surely more than a few Hail Mary tosses at the end of actual NFL games under their belts, would be just as likely to be so far out of position that it took them nearly three seconds to even appear in the video frame after the ball reached M.D. Jennings and Golden Tate.And after the ball was in the air for another three seconds prior. Do these defenders of the shield really want us to believe that a seasoned crew would’ve taken almost six seconds to get anywhere near the primary pile of players plucking at a ball on a desperation pass in the end zone?
First, the video clearly shows Back Judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn standing under the goalpost and just beginning his casual jog, not even a sprint, to the scrum as the ball is about to reach the only obvious clustering of players in the end zone. While no one can say for certain, it’s a fair assumption that a more experienced back judge would’ve anticipated the target of the pass and gotten a head start to the spot, enabling him to get a clearer view of the catch as it reached the sea of hands.
Second, when Rhone-Dunn and Side Judge Lance Easley finally arrived on the scene of the crime, they did correctly get into the proper positions to determine which player had possession. However, each official reached a different conclusion. But while both judges looked for the ball to make their assessment, neither of them appeared to consult with the other to see if they had seen the same result before signaling their opposing rulings. Only after their hands were in the air did they look to each other and realize their conflict, leading to Easley diving into the pile to confirm whether he had made a mistake or not. This is another moment where the officials who had seen these plays many times in the pros would’ve gotten together for a quick chat to see who had the better vantage point before signaling anything.
Third is the missed pass interference call, which should’ve negated the entire play. Even the NFL admits that. The argument from the experts at NFL Network goes like this: We reviewed over 80 Hail Mary plays, and none of them, zero, ever had a pass interference call. The officials just don’t call PI on either team on these kinds of plays. Without having access to these 80+ plays, it’s impossible to say whether any of them actually had any arguable PI candidates, but I’ll bet none of those plays had a push off that was as obvious and easily noticed as Tate’s. Once again, a more experience side judge would have likely been in better position to make this call, considering how far away Easley was at that moment.
Play it again, Sam. But the play would’ve been reviewed anyway, you say, so what does it matter if they made conflicting calls, or a quick call without a conference? It matters greatly, given the evidence required to overturn a call on the field, which brings us to the next part of the fiasco: the review.
There seems to be no clear indication of whether Elliot or replay official Howard Slavin made the final call during the review, but what we know is this: Elliot never even announced a ruling on the field, only that the play was under review, another mistake that a Hochuli, Alberto Riveron, or Pete Morelli would not have made. But ok, heat of the moment, and at least some of the crew had signaled touchdown. Then, either Slavin or Elliot ruled that there was not enough visual evidence to overturn the ruling of touchdown. With the exception of the Seattle Seahawks and their fans, who share no fault in this, anyone with one good eye (which means I myself am qualified) clearly saw Jennings gain control first, before Tate reached in to jostle for it.
Is it possible that the union officials could’ve upheld the ruling even after replay? Sure it’s possible, but only by narrowly interpreting one rule, and nearly completely ignoring another.
Rate the replay, not the play. The NFL’s official statement on the ruling, which came 12 hours later, cited the rule on the process of completing a pass when going to the ground, which, when taken alone, could be used to argue that Jennings did not have a “catch” until after he hit the ground, and by that point, Tate also had control.
The statement did also cite this simultaneous possession rule, saying that Tate and Jennings both had possession once they reached the ground. Again, taken alone, this plays in favor of Tate and a touchdown. However, the simultaneous possession rule also clearly states that if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control, there is no simultaneous possession. So they cited a rule, then chose to completely ignore the part of it that directly applied to this play, just to cover for a replacement referee, a regular replay official, or both.
While the NFL has stood by questionable calls made by the regular officials before, this instance amounts to sticking their head in the sand.
It’s not just the touchdown, it’s also the lead up. But back to the game itself and what a regular crew would’ve done differently. Quite arguably, the play isn’t likely to have ever happened in the first place.On the Seattle drive prior to the game-losing drive, there were two defensive penalties called that did not seem consistent with similar calls or non-calls earlier in the game, or most other games ever. A roughing the passer penalty against linebacker Erik Walden was seen by most as a stretch at best. Walden was ruled to have hit quarterback Russell Wilson too low, while what he was actually doing was trying to tackle a mobile quarterback outside of the pocket, which makes Wilson a runner, no longer a passer given the normal protection of being in the pocket.
The second penalty of defensive pass interference was called a few plays later on Packers cornerback Sam Shields. Given that much of the down the field grabbing, pushing, and shoving has gone unpenalized in the first three weeks of this season, including earlier in this game, Shields was flagged seemingly for breathing on WR Sidney Rice.
Once again, in each of these cases, a more seasoned crew with a more consistent track record would’ve called these plays differently. Not to mention other questionable non-calls earlier in the game that would have further steered the course of the game in an entirely new direction. Talk about an alternate universe!
While the Seahawks did not wind up scoring on this drive, it did shift the field position to the point where Seattle received the subsequent Packers’ punt at midfield, setting up the Fail Mary.
The straw that broke the camel’s back. This leads us back to the argument that the regular officials could’ve made the same bad call. The facts, as laid before you, show that it’s not only highly unlikely, but it also completely misses the point. Fans, players, and coaches did not view this one play as an isolated incident that could be explained away as a fluke. It was the crystallization of weeks of building uneasiness, confusion, concern, and anger over inexperienced and unprepared amateurs being expected to simply walk in and fill the shoes of those who often go unnoticed and underappreciated, but who, as this blog has pointed out on occasion, have an excellent overall track record, and the trust of the coaches and players they judge.
To say that focusing on this one play is unfair to the replacements is like saying Dan Quayle was an awful Vice President because he misspelled potato.
Not a higher standard, just the same standard
The scrutiny given to the replacements is based solely on their overall track record over the course of the first three weeks of this season, not one call in one game. Had they given as consistent, solid performances as the locked out officials have year in and year out, this one play would’ve truly been just that: one play for hardcore sports fans to get up in arms about beside the water cooler the next morning. And that would be the end of it. Instead, it became the symbol of a league misguided, a fan base that had seen enough, and an impetus for the return of those guys we love to hate.
Do the regular refs make bad calls? Sure, and some of them are part of NFL lore. But the regular guys have a handful of memorable snafus over the course of several decades. The league has caused one of the biggest in just 3 weeks. If not for a newly inked agreement, I’d worry about many more like this one during this season alone.