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Beyond the tipping point, this is the drowning point


Week 3: Packers at Seahawks

The NFL is a brand built on integrity. It has a historical image that goes back to coal-mining towns of Ohio and Pennsylvania, which laid the foundation for the spectacle that every week of the season brings. But, in order to leverage a labor dispute, the league decided to risk the integrity of the brand and place inexperienced officials on the field.

Yes, the calls by the replacement officials were correct most of the time, with several high-profile errors along the way. But the game is usually officiated with greater than 98% accuracy, and even the casual fan notices that no game this season has reached 98%. Bad calls happen all the time, but at least none of the calls this season had a material affect on the outcome of the game.

Enter the crew of Wayne Elliot. He will not be officiating any Packers games anymore.

On the concluding play of regulation, a desperation pass by the Seahawks was ruled interception by one official, touchdown by another. If you haven’t seen the play, turn on your TV, it should be running in loop right now.

The ruling on the field was apparently simultaneous possession, and therefore a touchdown. I say apparently, because Elliot never made an announcement as to how the call was made, just that the play was being reviewed by the replay official. The rulebook (Rule 8-1-3, Item 5) clearly addresses how possession is determined when one player secures the ball before the other:

It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.

This was a crucial call at the most crucial point in the game. This requires judgment of near scientific precision. Because of the ongoing labor dispute, one of the officials making the call was a call-up from a junior college conference.

Referee Elliot was not involved in the call, but he becomes the chief justice of the gridiron when he has conflicting calls. It is up to him to pull the two officials aside and determine who saw what. The two officials with twelve weeks professional football experience must reach a consensus.

The official who ruled interception left the Big XII conference a few years ago. He was talked into ruling touchdown by the one from the junior-college circuit.

Now with the replay review called, the crew chief must make a decision based on his associates’ ruling and the video evidence, in consultation with the replay official (replay officials are not on lockout; these are the regular personnel).

There are conflicting answers on whether the play can be overturned as interception. In the list of reviewable plays the one provision that seems to allow it is listed as (a)2:

pass completed/incomplete/intercepted at sideline, goal line, end zone, and end line.

After he reviewed the play, Elliot made the announcement that would determine the fortune of the game. “The call on the field stands.” Words are very important, and have specific meaning in this context. If the referee thinks that the ruling is correct, he will say “confirmed.” But “stands” is the bailout response. If no clear indisputable evidence is seen, then the play “stands” as it was called. There are many factors that would make an official rule this way, but one could be interpretive: if he and the replay official did not interpret that the rulebook, with its arcane and twisted provisions, granted authority to change a completion into an interception. And, since Elliot took a crash course in the NFL rulebook, he hamhandedly reached for the bailout button for this incredibly profound call, the likes of which few of the union officials have seen.

Every seat in the stadium is filled with a person. Not a profit margin, not a demographic. The audience watching at home or in their favorite bar is not composed of ratings points. Fans built this game to surpass the national pasttime. Fans brought the game from towns like Pottsville, Pa., to the largest national stage in the Super Bowl.

But on Monday night, Seahawks fans are driving home oddly conflicted about a win that feels unearned. It’s like winning a jackpot when the dealer made a mistake.

The league did not see faces when it played hardball with the referees’ union. And now the tough bargain is not with union negotiators, but convincing the fans that the league still has a shred of integrity.

Image: Ric Tapia/NFL

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Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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19 thoughts on “Beyond the tipping point, this is the drowning point

  1. I literally think the game was rigged. There were 3 blatantly wrong calls. Remember that last week had a Saints fan as an official. I would not be surprised if the officials threw this game on purpose. Roughing the passer, defensive pass interference, and of course the final play were dreadful calls.

  2. That was the most disgraceful ending to a professional sporting event I have ever seen. First, they miss the offensive pass interference, then have conflicting signals, then make the wrong call, then uphold the poor call, then lose control of the extra point.

    The final play made all of the other poor penalty calls seem forgivable, which they weren’t.

  3. surprised none of the packers tried to choke those fake officials, one of whom was fired by the big 12.

  4. This was a disgrace! It was always fun watching the home team-win or lose. NOW, it feels rigged and wrong. Way to hurt your brand NFL. YOU are your own worst enemy-just sad and a disgrace. When Superbowl comes around, will they really be the legitimate winner?? All because they don’t want to pay their ref’s, after they make millions on tax exempt property, tickets, food, products, etc., etc ….just total disrespect for the fans.

  5. @Marty, Ben can correct me if I’m wrong, but the regular officials in the replay booth can only call for a review, which would happen on any scoring play or turnover regardless. The ruling on the review itself is still decided by the on-field referee.

  6. Sponsors need to pull the advertising money until the NFL and referees end their negotiations. I would go to the circus if I wanted to see clowns. Green Bay was robbed by the clowns and I’m not laughing.

  7. Very good post. IMHO, the one thing that turned the tide in baseball and helped football move ahead as the “national pastime” was also a labor dispute. Now a labor dispute may be undoing all the good the NFL has done in the last few decades. It is very sad to see.

  8. I’m reading your well-written post at 745 AM. Because you mentioned Pottsville, PA, I now want a Yuengling to go with my morning bowl of oatmeal.

  9. Not sure the NFL or any other profession league has been concerned with integrity. It has been about money and profit. These are not good or bad motives, but when we place our desire to see integrity where none is installed, we will feel cheated for sure. Outside of the gambling aspect/possibility, I do not believe anyone is trying to do a bad job here. These replacements are woefully inexperienced for this level of football. As has been pointed out elsewhere, at no time since the Super Bowl era has an entire crew been made up of rookies. These officials have no mentor to keep them between the ditches. As long as the NFL does not get hit in the wallet, there is no way an agreement with the NFLRA will be reached before Thanksgiving, and perhaps even Christmas.

  10. @D Ray Tucker, Some may cynically say that the league isn’t concerned with integrity, but they do, in fact, CLAIM to be. They back up this claim by levying fines and suspensions to players and coaches nearly every week for “conduct detrimental to the league.” It’s too bad they can’t fine or suspend themselves.

    I do agree with your sentiment that the league is unlikely to effect change unless it gets hit in the wallet, though I wonder if the casual or even hardcore NFL fan is likely to stand up in such a way. Jawing abut bad calls is one thing (in fact, a God-given right, in most eyes), but can we, as fans, stomach a boycott? Many fans didn’t even boycott replacement players, let alone officials.

  11. Lance Easley was the side judge who didn’t call the OPI, and was the ref who quickly signaled touchdown. Can anyone track how many penalties he called on the Packers last night. I could’ve sworn he was only penalizing the Packers. Did anyone else notice that?

  12. What everyone complaining about the last call seems to forget is that the entire game was wrought with poor officiating. Had the players been actually allowed to play on both sides of the line of scrimmage, perhaps that last play would never had occurred.

  13. Packers fan here chiming in after the Texans-Lions controversial call.

    In the Seattle-Packers game, I witnessed a simultaneous catch. As I imagine every simultaneous catch to be questionable, I was certain that when I went to check fan reaction, there would be some people who thought it should’ve gone the Packers way. I was very surprised to learn that I was in a minority of NFL fans and pretty much on my own little island as a Packers fan. To this day, I still look at as a simultaneous catch, and am pleased this was met with an official review. I think one thing that kinda helps the case for simultaneous catch is the idea that we’ve seen players catch balls with one hand. So while Jennings has 2 hands initially on the ball, Tate has control with one hand, and while they both fall to the ground Tate is seen gaining control with his second hand. When they are both on the ground, Tate has 2 hand on the ball that he never let go of.

    To me, the Texans-Lions call is a far bigger disgrace from an NFL fan perspective, as this play was deemed not reviewable. I find that indefensible and believe, very strongly, that the cited rules that say the play is not reviewable are unfounded, or at very least, misapplication of rules.

    So, now here in 2012, we have 2 highly controversial calls, one by a crew of replacement refs, and one by a crew of regular refs. We can ignore this and pretend everything in the NFL is basically okay, or perhaps we might start to realize the NFL officiating is beyond the tipping point and is drowning in its blatant misuse of the challenge system. The integrity of this game has been tainted very badly in 2012. If playing under protest is not allowed under such circumstances, then one must wonder, are NFL fans supporting a game that is arguably fixed?

  14. Not sure anyone is reading these anymore as the last post was from November, but just in case:) I have looked into that play with the Hawks and Packers, I live in KC by the way, and agree with the Packers guy. When you watch the play over again in slow mo you see that Tate has his left hand on the ball as he reaches up first, and then brings the ball to his chest with one hand. Jennings does get two hands on the ball after Tate touches it with one hand. Tate lands with two feet on the ground first while Jennings is still in the air, and he still has the ball secured to his chest while Jennings is trying to rip it away. Tate then completes the “football move” when he lands on his butt in the end zone.

    Seems to me like the replacements got this one right as Tate has first possession, never loses possession as noted by Jennings trying to still rip it away on the ground, Tate is first to get his two feet on the ground and complete a football move. Catch and TD. Seems the media are either incompetent or involved in the conspiracy, why didn’t they look at it and know the rules well enough to acknowledge after seeing the play in slo mo that the call was right? Wanted to get the replacements out I suppose. Not that I minded that either.

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