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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

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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