Monday night’s game is not why the lockout had to end

As of last night, I had no intention of commenting on the call. But after a good night’s sleep, I decided to weigh in, for the sake of sanity – mine, and everyone else’s.

It seems that much of the outrage has been directed at the Lingerie Football League referees, and at the NFL owners who hired them. The opinion hardly varies whether you’re asking a professional mainstream journalist, a sports journalist, or a sports fan:

This is the first time that the outcome of a game was so clearly decided — and decided wrongly — by replacement referees.

– Cindy Boren, for The Washington Post

In a photograph that will live in infamy, one official ruled the play a touchdown and the other a touchback. Neither looked as if he wanted to make the call.

The NFL got what it deserved Monday night.

– Ken Seifert, for ESPN

We really need the refs back because now it has cost us a game and that shouldn’t be happening.

– Green Bay resident Seth Wagnitz, to the Green Bay Press Gazette

Even I got into it:

And while that anger is understandable, after conducting an official review, I believe it is misguided.

The referees’ call raises two distinct questions. The first is as follows: was it correct by any objective, reality-based standard?

Now – like the replacement referees – I’m no expert on the rules of the NFL, so I’ll accept the concensus view that the call was incorrect: Jennings pick for the touchback, game over.

That assumption brings us to the second question: Why did the referees rule incorrectly? Was it simply because they are incompetent b00bs n00bs? Or are they simply susceptible to the same human error as the rest of us – and more importantly, as the NFL’s everyday nonreplacement referees?

I think it’s hard to argue that the regular referees would have gotten this call right.

The NFL is a game of inches. Things happen quickly, and it’s up to the referees to catch the action as it happens. But that’s not always possible. Sometimes a play is so impossibly complex that demanding accuracy on the first try is unrealistic. That’s why the NFL has instant replay,* and that’s why official review is now mandatory on scoring plays.

If I recall correctly, six players went up for the ball. At least two appeared to come down with it to some degree. Watching from home, could you tell exactly what happened? Answer this one honestly: Before ESPN showed the instant replay? Could anyone in the stadium? I had two family members sitting on the sidelines last night. Within moments, they were texting me – sitting in my apartment in New Haven – to ask what had happened.

To ask what the replays showed.

Obviously, the spectators have no responsibility to accurately call the game. They don’t sit close enough to the action. That’s what the referees are for. But referees are human too, and they have to make a call based on the best information available to them at the time. And if the referees – the everyday referees – could get every call right on their first try, there would be no need for official review.

Could the referees have put themselves in better position? Absolutely. But considering how many different angles of replay it took to settle the question conclusively [here’s one you might not have seen], it’s hard to fault them for being out of position to accurately call the play. And remember, the official officials get this wrong all. the. time.

Seifert got it exactly right (above), “Neither [referee] looked as if he wanted to make the call.”

Neither one could definitively conclude whether Jennings or Tate caught the ball, whether it was ‘simultaneous catch’ or an interception. So they went through the checkdown of information that was actually available to them.

And here’s what they saw: the ball was caught. Period.

In a last-second fourth-down Hail Mary, the defender’s goal is clear: swat away the ball. Don’t get an interception. Just knock it down. Out of bounds, if possible. So if Jennings had complete control, why did the ball come down in somebody’s – anybody’s – arms? Without a perfect view of the action, it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that Tate had a sufficiently strong claim to the ball to deserve the ‘simultaneous catch’ ruling he got.

No doubt the refs also raced through other possibilities. We can’t know. What we do know is that they both hesitated, guessed, and in doing so, punted the call up to the review booth. Maybe you call that incompetence. I call that what they’re supposed to do.

To the booth! [Editor’s note: Feel free to say this again in a week*]. When viewed in slow motion, it seems clear that Jennings got the interception. But the officials didn’t overturn the call. Total incompetence! End the lockout!

*This is a Succot joke.

Just one problem: As made clear in the NFL’s official statement, the official reviewers are not replacement referees. They were never locked out, but retained as “the NFL’s safety net” for just these circumstances. Bringing back the locked-out referees solves nothing:

Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.

Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.

Chalk this up to incompetence, chalk this up to a cover-up, chalk this up to whatever or whomever you want – just not the replacement refs. The ruling was botched not because the referees made some egregious, unforgiveable error, but because the reviewing officials – the exact same officials who will be in the booth Thursday night, when the refs are back – didn’t see enough evidence on replay to overturn the call.

You might note that the NFL statement did acknowledge that Golden Tate should have been called for offensive pass interference. But the statement also clearly says that that ruling was simply not up for review:

While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay.

If you want to blame anyone, try the NFL rules that allow the review of some elements of objective reality but not others.

That said, there’s no real argument that this instance deserves to be the exception, that the Seahawks should play the rest of their season with an asterisk indicating that they ‘should have’ lost, and that the play should haunt them all the way to iy”h the Superbowl.

I mean, I understand the argument on an instinctual level. Much of the uproar over Monday’s outcome was not just because the refs got the call so egregiously wrong, but because the play went down with zero seconds on the clock. The ruling’s outcome seems so clear-cut:

Interception? 12-7.

Touchdown? 13/14-12.

One little change, and hand the Packers the win they deserve. Do it, Goodell.

Not so simple. Regulation is 60 minutes. This controversial play lasted just eight seconds. During the other 59 minutes and 52 seconds, the referees got any number of plays wrong – plays that undoubtedly affected the outcome of the game. Some calls went the Seahawks way. Some calls went the Packers way. Yes, most of those blown calls are on the replacement refs.

But these are the same refs who have been calling every game for the past three weeks – this game should be counted like any other. Choosing to overturn the final play on Monday and handing a win to the Packers simply because it happened as the clock wound down is the definition of arbitrary.

At the end of the day, the replacement refs needed to go – but Monday night’s game shouldn’t have changed anything.

And besides, give the non-Lingerie League referees one week back on the field. I promise, you’ll forget how awful the replacements were and go back to hating on the regular ones.


*And that’s why MLB should expand instant replay.


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