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The Straw That Broke the NFL’s Back

The Monday Night Football fiasco showed that football is on a dangerous course to irrelevance

Enough is enough. My ongoing defense of the replacement referees, from the preseason on, has been that they haven’t done anything quite as awful as when the “real” referees simultaneously signaled in opposite directions during a fumble recovery last year. Obviously, that’s no longer the case. Monday night’s dramatic ending to the Packers-Seahawks game officially saw the league’s replacement officials complete their trip from irritating sideshow to spectacular main event by directly changing the outcome of a game on a questionable call, one that was delivered with their reliable combination of befuddlement and insouciance. It was the first time that the replacement officials had turned a win into a loss by making the wrong call on the final play of the game, unless you believe that the same thing happened with the field goal that ended the Patriots-Ravens contest on Sunday night, in which case that just happened in consecutive games. You often hear about games in which the team who got the ball last won. This was a game in which the team who had the opportunity to be screwed last lost.

The big decision on the game’s final play from scrimmage only came about after four quarters full of terrible calls. On one fourth-quarter drive alone, the Seahawks had an interception taken off the board on a questionable “roughing the passer” penalty, which was followed up by a mystifying pass interference penalty on perfect coverage from Sam Shields that got Seattle out of a first-and-25 spot. The Packers got the lead on a long drive that was extended on a ticky-tack pass interference against Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. The bad calls went both ways, but the most meaningful one seemed to beggar belief.

By now, you’ve probably seen the play. Although you can try to make a case that Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings never had sole possession of the ball, a decision that would make the play a simultaneous possession between Jennings and Seahawks wideout Golden Tate and, by rule, award the ball (and touchdown) to the Seahawks, the vast majority of the evidence available suggests that Jennings had possession of the ball before Tate was able to get his hands on it and establish simultaneous possession. In that scenario, the ball belongs to the Packers.

My normal inclination would be to defer to the referee who was standing several feet away from the play with a great view, but that just doesn’t make sense in this NFL. After all, two refs near the play managed to come up with two entirely different interpretations of what happened and two drastically different resolutions, with one signaling for a touchdown and the other for an interception-driven touchback. Somehow, in a matter of moments and without replay, these officials managed to make the definitive call that the play had been a touchdown.1 Why was that the official decision as opposed to the simultaneously called interception or even an incomplete pass? It seems stunning that two refs within a few yards of a play would make different calls, but when you realize that these are the same refs who bumbled their way through a series of embarrassing goal-line calls in the Washington–St. Louis game last Sunday, it’s really not that much of a surprise. I nominated Wayne Elliott’s crew for termination last week, and even before the shambolic final play from scrimmage, they did nothing to convince me I was being harsh. Whoever was responsible for assigning the crew that let the Rams-Skins game descend into chaos in a slot on national television in the league’s loudest stadium deserves to get canned, too.

It’s that aspect of replacement referee performance that’s really come to surprise me over the first three weeks of the season. To be honest, it’s not exactly unexpected that the officials would screw up on judgment calls like pass interference or, say, simultaneous possession on a catch. They’ve been worse there than I expected, but that was always going to be the aspect of their performance where their lack of experience would stand out.

Instead, the officials have shown an incredible propensity for getting simple facts wrong. They mis-spot balls on the wrong side of the field. They forget to keep accurate track of how many timeouts each team has. They call for fumbles on plays in which a guy’s entire body was down on the ground and then whistle plays dead on clean strips. They incorrectly award touchdowns and interpret pylon rules on plays that are directly in front of them. It’s a miracle that we don’t see more accidental “12 men on the field” penalties, because it seems generous to assume they can count all the way up to 12. And for all the exposition of an Ed Hochuli, who doesn’t long for the days of detailed minutiae when the replacement refs announce a mysterious penalty or review reversal, don’t explain what happened or who was involved, and then bounce back onto the field to renew the game? It’s telling that, at the end of the Patriots-Ravens game, a reasonably large portion of independent observers assumed that the referees standing directly underneath the goal post weren’t qualified to judge the one thing they were supposed to be judging.

This is only the second-worst thing that could happen under the replacement refs, though we’re seemingly on our way to the first. As bad as a would-be win becoming a loss is, the worst thing would be if a notable player suffered a serious injury by virtue of referee incompetence and without penalty. That’s already been broached a few times this year. In the Elliott crew’s Week 2 game, Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins teed off on defenseless tight end Fred Davis with a hit that knocked Davis out of the game. It went uncalled. On Sunday, Raiders linebacker Philip Wheeler did his best Bernard Pollard impersonation by crawling three steps to dive at Ben Roethlisberger’s knee from behind. The classic “Brady Rule” hit drew no flag. And in this game, Seahawks corner Brandon Browner knocked down Greg Jennings with an enormous cheap shot to the head away from the play, a move that incited a grappling battle in the end zone. It was flagged as part of offsetting personal foul penalties, but Browner should have been ejected. NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith has argued that the players might seek “any relief we believe is appropriate” if referees are not up to defending player safety. You can guess what that implies, and that would get the referee lockout taken care of very, very quickly.

At this point, it’s become time for the league to put its tail between its legs, apologize profusely, and ask the locked-out referees to come back under a deal of the NFLRA’s choosing. There’s no reason the referees should accept the same terms they would have offered two weeks ago; after a weekend dominated by the replacements, the real referees have more leverage than they had even a week ago. In fact, the only reason the league might want to push an agreement back further is that they have no leverage whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine the replacements being quite as noticeably bad as they were this week.

If you make that move now, you also put a line under it and reduce this lockout to an early-season curiosity as opposed to a season-defining fiasco. The league can point to the positive effort it made to end the lockout as opposed to letting it linger on until the union breaks. If this gets to Week 8 and remains as big a story as it has been, though, the whole scenario is different. 2012 becomes a lost season, one in which the public doesn’t necessarily believe that the best teams in the league are competing in the playoffs. That kills your league’s credibility. The NFL is actually lucky that this disappointment happened to the Packers, who have no central owner who would complain to the league on their behalf. What if this happened to the Cowboys and they ended up missing the playoffs by one game? Don’t you think Jerry Jones would be rattling every cage he could find to threaten the league with a lawsuit?

I recently read an argument suggesting that the replacement refs don’t really matter in the big picture. The evidence is that NFL ratings are still sky-high, which suggests that the fans who complain that poor refereeing is “ruining” the game are still watching. And it’s true, maybe they are still watching. But as the season goes along, if the games continue to produce terrifyingly false endings like Packers-Seahawks, I’m pretty sure that’s going to change. The easiest way to get people to stop watching is to make them think that the games they’re watching are illegitimate and irrelevant. With the continued employment of replacement referees, that is the exact path the NFL’s games are on.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell