In the worst officiating debacle since the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, when incompetent game and table officials literally robbed the United States men’s Olympic basketball team of a gold medal, the National Football League became the laughingstock of professional sports Monday night.
On-field replacement officials and league-employed replay officials botched a last-second call on a “Hail Mary” pass by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson that clearly intercepted by Green Bay Packers defender M.D. Jennings. The botched call and the absolute farce that followed, resulted in a 14-12 Seahawks win over the Packers in a game that will be discussed for weeks and weeks, especially if it ends up having an effect on the playoff positioning for the Packers.
The controversy began when officials overlooked a blatant offensive interference call when Seattle’s Golden Tate leveled Green Bay’s Sam Shields with a two-hand shove as a 24-yard pass made its way toward the end zone as time expired and Green Bay leading 12-7 in a nationally telecast Monday Night Football game on ESPN.
Clearly, Jennings, the Packers’ safety, leaped up and intercepted the ball, then fell to the end zone as Tate attempted to grab and wrestle the ball away. As they fell in a pile-up, the backfield referees scrambled to gain position to make a call. Inexplicably, one referee signaled a touchback (the call for an intercepted ball in the end zone) while another signaled a touchdown as he clearly viewed the ball in the hands of Jennings. The referee signaling the touchdown then overruled his colleague and the Seahawks fans and players burst into celebration as ESPN broadcasters gasped in disbelief.
To make matters worse, the play was put under review by league instant replay rules and the off-field officials were put in place to reverse the inaccurate decision made by their colleagues. Only the “eye-in-the-sky” can correct the bad call, but the subsequent decision by the instant replay officials again, inexplicably, agreed with the on-field call .
Multiple media reports, reverse angles and basic common sense confirmed the NFL’s worst nightmare as the ball was most definitely in the hands of Jennings, the defender, and the game should’ve ended as a 12-7 Green Bay victory.
The Seahawks and their home fans celebrated the win as the dejected Packers left the field in utter disgust but, under NFL rules, the Seahawks were entitled to kick a PAT (point after touchdown). The game officials summoned the Packers back to the field while the Seahawks players and coaches continued celebrating their fortunate, albeit unfair, victory. Eventually, after returning to the field, searching through equipment boxes, locating game helmets and assembling 11 defenders, the Packers watched while placekicker Steven Hauschka kicked to the ball through the uprights to make the final score 14-12.
After the game was ruled as a Seattle victory, social media sites and on-air sports commentators lambasted the replacement officials and the NFL, many calling it an embarrassment to the league, once thought of as the model for efficiency and credibility in all of sports. Even the NFL’s owned- and-operated channel, the NFL Network, took the league to task. ESPN was harsher.
“For 10 years, the Commissioner’s office has been coming into the NFL locker rooms and saying, ‘we will do anything to protect the shield. Anything! We will exhaust every opportunity to protect this brand. It’s ironic, that you, the NFL, is what’s screwing this brand up right now,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL QB Trent Dilfer on the postgame show.
The Monday Night Fiasco came a day after New England Coach Bill Belichick grabbed the arm of an official after the New England Patriots lost 31-30 to the Baltimore Ravens.
The NFL locked out its regular officials in June after a collective bargaining agreement expired. The league hired and trained replacement officials for all preseason games and for the first three weeks of the regular season. After an uneventful first week of play, there has been growing criticism over the way some games have been called, including a total meltdown of effectiveness in a Monday Night game last week between the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, won by Atlanta 27-21.
On Monday, the NFL issued fines of $30,000 to Broncos Coach John Fox and $25,000 to Denver offensive coordinator Jack Del Rio for their verbal comments on the officiating last week. On Sunday, replacement officials admitted making two mistakes in Minnesota’s victory over San Francisco, while a few other games included questionable calls that have rocked the credibility of the league like never before. Referee Ken Roan said he twice granted 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh video challenges after Harbaugh called timeout in the fourth quarter. Neither challenge should have been allowed once Harbaugh asked for time.
Both mistakes happened during a six-play span in Minnesota’s 24-13 upset of the 49ers. Then, in both the Lions-Titans and Bengals-Redskins games, officials marked-off too much yardage on penalty calls. The Redskins were penalized 20 yards instead of 15 for unsportsmanlike conduct in the final seconds of their 38-31 loss to Cincinnati.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III spiked the ball to stop the clock with seven seconds left. Then, tight end Fred Davis was called for a 5-yard false start penalty. According to Washington coach Mike Shanahan, at least one official indicated there would be a 10-second runoff, ending the game. The Bengals, led by coach Marvin Lewis, started walking onto the field. There shouldn’t have been a runoff, though, because the clock was stopped by the spike. The Redskins began arguing, and eventually the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called.
Earlier Sunday, the NFL players’ union sent an open letter to team owners calling for an end to the lockout.
“Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity,” the NFL Players Association wrote. “This affirmative decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game that has taken decades to build.”
Terry Lyons is publisher and editor-in-chief of Boston-based DigitalSportsDesk http://www.digitalsportsdesk.com where he writes on football, basketball, baseball and hockey.