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Fail Mary was a failure beyond the field




Commentary by Ben Austro

The play was one in a million. You could work the triple shifts in peewee right up through three decades in the NFL and still not see a simultaneous catch call like this (video).

The Packers-Seahawks meeting in 2012 was the end of the seventh full week of games, including the preseason, officiated by a collection of replacement officials who were no better than two rungs below the NFL — and many of them much lower. A labor impasse between the league office and the referees union was essentially stalled for weeks. The league locked out the officials preemptively to avoid a strike.

It started with Russell Wilson falling way back, trying to turn nothing into something. A desperate heave towards the end zone as time expired proved indecisive to the crew who gave mixed signals. Lance Easley, a side judge called up from junior college games, threw up a touchdown signal with some hesitation, only glancing at back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn, a retired veteran most recently with the Big 12 Conference. Rhone-Dunn hadn’t given a definitive signal either way, and neither of the covering officials seemed to communicate with each other. Referee Wayne Elliot went straight to a replay review without definitively stating the call that was decided on the field.

To his credit, Easley has owned his call — although, there really is no other choice — that most disagree with. He parlayed that one call into a book and public speaking gig as well.

failmary_catch_cuBy rule simultaneous possession goes to the receiver. However, if the defense first secures control of the ball, the offense cannot get simultaneous possession merely by jointly possessing the ball; the offense must then fully secure it in its own right before getting a catch ruling. It happened fast, but Easley and Rhone-Dunn failed to see M.D. Jennings secure the ball for the Packers before Seahawks receiver Golden Tate even touched the ball. It is also clear that Easley was not fully versed in the rulebook of the league he was working for: he believed Jennings needed two feet down with sole control of the ball to win out a simultaneous possession ruling.

Elliot either involuntarily or by choice handed the decision over to replay official Howard Slavin (who was not a replacement official) and game supervisor Phil Luckett, according to Elliot’s later admission. (Typically, the supervisor is a passive observer and does not get involved in replay.) Slavin and Luckett determined there was no indisputable evidence, therefore, the catch by Tate should stand. It is not clear if they considered simultaneous possession a reviewable call in the context of a touchdown ruling.

The league also failed its fans, as it took more than half a day to respond to the play by releasing a statement that was attributed to no one in the league office, not even the vice president of officiating, Carl Johnson. But interwoven in the anonymous statement was essentially two dings on Easley: a missed offensive pass interference call that would have negated the play and a “support” of the catch call. In officials’ parlance, a vote of “support” means the office doesn’t grade you down for the call, but they don’t fully agree with it either. Instead of a thumbs up or down, it is more of a furrowed brow.

Commissioner Roger Goodell and his second-in-command Ray Anderson made the fatal assumption that the veteran officials were just replaceable cogs in the machinery of the NFL. Anderson admitted that the quality of the officiating would be less than the locked out officials, but it wouldn’t be much of a difference. It was rationalized that the union officials make mistakes, too.

The only thing that was decisive on this play was the league’s determination to settle the collective bargaining agreement before another game was played. Within two days a deal was reached, returning the officials to the field in less than a day.

Football Zebras has learned from two sources that a regular union crew was assigned in addition to a replacement crew for those games in 2012. The crew that would have called the game would have been headed by Tony Corrente. That places side judge Allen Baynes and Greg Wilson on the scene in an alternate universe. (For the record, there would not have been any impact to the playoff seedings had the result flipped the other way, thankfully. Update: The Packers were dropped to a number-3 seed, and the 49ers ascended to a number-2 seed, which flips the determination of the first-round bye; h/t Joe Meeusen)

Would they have ruled differently? There is no way to tell for certain, but we do know there would be three highly graded officials on the call. Since that fateful play, Baynes officiated in that season’s NFC Championship game and Corrente and Wilson worked last season’s AFC Conference Championship.

The failure of that play even extends to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as they have in their collection a relic of the replacement official era: the hat and flag of Shannon Eastin — an official that broke the gender barrier in the NFL under the lax hiring standards of a replacement official. Yet, there is not one official who enshrined in the Hall of Fame; officials, apparently, may only enter the Hall of Fame as long as they pay for a ticket at the door like everyone else.