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Bring Back The Real NFL Refs! Debacle At End Of Game Adds To Outrage

Sep 25, 2012
Originally published on September 25, 2012 7:39 pm

Football fans are furious. Bettors are out an estimated $150 million. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin — the Republican who's famous for battling with organized labor — is on the side of the referees union. And the NFL is in something of a "prevent defense," saying that nothing can be done to change the outcome.

All because of what looks to be one of the worst series of decisions by NFL referees in the league's long history.

Monday night's nationally televised game ended with the refs giving the Seattle Seahawks a 14-12 win over the Green Bay Packers on a call in the end zone that awarded Seattle a touchdown that almost all observers agree the team didn't deserve.

We should say "replacement refs." The league's regular officials have been locked out because of a contract dispute over their pensions and whether they will become full-time employees or stay, officially, as part-timers.

It's the talk of the nation today as fans beg for the league and its regular officials to settle their differences so that the "real" refs can come back. NPR's Mike Pesca will be on All Things Considered later to sort out what's going on. We'll add his report to the top of this post when it's ready.

In the meantime, though, here's the story as of mid-afternoon, from our original post and earlier updates:

It's the play that will live in infamy (NFL.com's word). It ended Monday night's football game between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.

As NPR's David Greene and Tom Goldman said earlier on Morning Edition, the chaotic finish "captures the confusion of this whole three weeks of shoddy officiating" while the league's regular referees have been off the field during a contract dispute and replacements have been trying to take their place.

Here's what happened:

With time expiring and Seattle behind 12-7, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a "hail Mary" pass into the endzone. As players from both teams jumped for the ball, Green Bay's M.D. Jennings appeared to grab it first. But as Jennings fell back to the ground, the Seahawks' Golden Tate got his hands on the ball as well.

Chaos then ensued.

One ref signaled that the ball had been intercepted by Green Bay — meaning he had given possession to Jennings. Another signaled that Seattle had scored a touchdown — meaning he either thought Tate had control of the ball, or that the two players had simultaneously gotten their hands on the pigskin (more on the simultaneous possession issue in a moment).

Now, the NFL guards its video so we can't embed footage of the play. But you can watch it as many times as you like here, on NFL.com. And it's in that clip, as you'll see, where former NFL coach Steve Mariucci talks about whether maybe — just maybe — the refs got the call right because if two players simultaneously gain possession on a play like that, the "tie" goes to the offense. In this case, Seattle.

But, to come to that conclusion you have to decide that Jennings and Tate got their hands on the ball at the same moment. And to our old eyes, that just doesn't seem to be the case. It looks like Green Bay's Jennings was the first to grab it. Mariucci agrees with us. He also notes that it looks like Tate committed a penalty just before the ball got to the end zone by pushing one of the Packers defenders. That should have ended the play right there, Mariucci argues.

Well, the refs came to the conclusion that it was a touchdown. Seattle won the game, 14-12. Now, football fans and headline writers are in tizzy today.

Twitter is lighting up, with regular Janes and Joes and even some Kings, as in the NBA's LeBron James, registering their outrage. "These replacement refs gotta go man!!," James tweeted early today. "Packers just got game took from them. I LOVE NFL football to much to see this type of work."

ESPN cuts to the chase with this headline: "Replacement Refs Hurting NFL."

Watch the replay if you haven't seen it already. What do you think?

Update at 1 p.m. ET. In Statement, NFL Says Penalty Should Have Ended The Game; But It Didn't; So Seattle Wins:

The league office has now issued its take on what happened and what can be done now. Basically, it says the game should have ended with an interference penalty on Seattle's Tate. But that foul wasn't flagged. And there isn't "indisputable visual evidence" to overturn the decision that the two players had "simultaneous possession" of the ball. So, that decision stands and Seattle is still the winner.

Here's the full statement:

"In Monday's game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, Seattle faced a 4th-and-10 from the Green Bay 24 with eight seconds remaining in the game.

"Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass into the end zone. Several players, including Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate and Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings, jumped into the air in an attempt to catch the ball.

"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.

"When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball. Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.

"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.

"The result of the game is final.

"Applicable rules to the play are as follows:

"A player (or players) jumping in the air has not legally gained possession of the ball until he satisfies the elements of a catch listed here.

"Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the NFL Rule Book defines a catch:

"A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:

"(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and

"(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and

"(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).

"When a player (or players) is going to the ground in the attempt to catch a pass, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 states:

"Player Going to the Ground. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

"Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5 states:

"Simultaneous Catch. If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The NFL is defending the latest controversial call by replacement refs as howls of injustice and incompetence reverberate across the country. Today, even President Obama and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan criticized the refs for the call that ended yesterday's game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks.

(SOUNDBITE OF NFL GAME)

MIKE TIRICO: The game's final play is a (unintelligible) loft to the end zone, which is blocked ball by Tate who's getting - simultaneous. Who has it? Who'd they give it to? Touchdown.

BLOCK: And with that call, Seattle won. The derided call raises questions about how long the game can withstand a lockout of regular referees by NFL owners. For more, NPR's Mike Pesca joins me. And Mike, let's review that last play. It was a Hail Mary pass. Seattle needed a touchdown to win. What happened?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Yeah, it seems exciting the way Mike Tirico of ESPN said, it was actually calamitous. And this was actually the only game in "Monday Night Football" history that ended on a touchdown during regulation. That normally would not be enough to get us to talk about it today. But what happened was, the defensive player, a guy by the name of M.D. Jennings caught the ball. That means it's an interception. He had it cradled within his chest. The offensive player, Golden Tate, had his hands in there. But to everyone's eye it would seem that it was an interception and therefore, no touchdown.

BLOCK: Everyone's eye but the referees on the field apparently.

PESCA: Yeah, there was one important guy who didn't agree, and he was the referee who raised his hands about his head and then there was a review that went nowhere. And today, the NFL issued a statement that everyone expected it to issue which was, we're not going to be overruling the call on the field. It did make a note though, that, I'll quote from it "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." So it's an odd construction, but it really says, we screwed up. And not even on the exact play that everyone's howling about.

BLOCK: And this has drawn so much outrage, I mean does this mean, is this the final straw? The question is, will this spur the owners to settle this lockout with the NFL referees?

PESCA: Right. So there are two things that are going on that seem very much intertwined. I'm not sure that they are. The refereeing is horrible. You know, it seems like a subjective statement but just look at all these games. The games are going longer. They're calling more and more penalties. Player after player are tweeting. The ESPN crew issuing sort of cri de coeur, you'll see Trent Dilfer and Steve Young, these two NFL quarterbacks who won Super Bowls, saying, the game is being sullied. But none of that might matter. The only thing that really matters is what the owners think. And if the owners want to present themselves as staunch negotiators, they might not be swayed by the public outcry at all.

BLOCK: I like this tweet from the Packers guard, T.J. Lange, Mike: Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs. Big question, how much will the situation hurt the game in the long term if at all?

PESCA: Yeah, you know, this is one thing that the NFL always says, that the ratings aren't going to go down. I wonder how much they want to ride on that supposition. Because sure, it's three games of the season. Every team is still more or less in it and they had close games. What about when the games get a little boring? What about when your team is all but eliminated? What if the loose, jangly, not-tight nature of the way these referees are refereeing the game really has an impact on the viewers? It could hurt ratings and when you talk about the dollars that they're apart. It's really a pension dispute. It's really miniscule. It's about $30 million dollars over seven years. The NFL makes $9.5 billion dollars a year.

BLOCK: And you figure, Mike, we're looking at replacement refs for awhile?

PESCA: Well, yeah. I mean even if they settle, the NFL, the regular refs could step right in there but they didn't have any preseason. They would get up to speed. But I think everyone who knows the game looks at not just this situation, but all these horrible pass interference calls and calls that really affected the outcomes of many games, not knowing where to spot the ball, not knowing simple rules. And they all say, give us the guys who've been doing this their whole lives. We'll get back to the NFL as we know and love it.

BLOCK: And briefly, Mike, some people have called this the worst call ever. What do you think?

PESCA: That is totally not true. It was just in the biggest moment while everyone was watching. And Golden Tate disagrees. Exactly.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Mike Pesca, thanks so much.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.