Golden Tate shoved a Green Bay defender out of the way, wrestled another for the ball and was awarded a disputed touchdown on the final play. But it was another 10 minutes before the game actually ended, when the Seattle Seahawks and the stunned Packers were called back on the field for the extra point.
Replacement ref rage may have peaked Monday night.
Just when it seemed that NFL coaches, players and fans couldn't get any angrier, along came a fiasco that trumped any of the complaints from the weekend. The Seahawks' 14-12 victory featured one of the most bizarre finishes in recent memory, and was certain to reignite frustrations over the locked-out officials.
''Don't ask me a question about the officials,'' Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. ''I've never seen anything like that in all my years in football.''
''I know it's been a wild weekend in the NFL and I guess we're part of it now,'' he said.
The commissioner, Roger Goodell, insists that the right call was made at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game. In other news: the NFL is officially pissing down the legs of NFL fans, but they assure us that it's actually raining.
The NFL is in some real danger here. The games are becoming a lame joke. Before Monday's game, the players and coaches had little respect for the second-hand zebras. After this latest train wreck, that thin patina of behavioral restraint is probably gone. Next week's games could easily degenerate into a bush league hockey match.
So the replacement refs are a big issue. Even though these men will probably get better in the coming weeks--they probably couldn't get worse, could they?-- they'll probably never be as good as the real zebras. But as bad as the new officials have been, their troublesome tenure brings into sharp relief some of the core problems within the pro football game.
Remember when you could look back on a week of football and see one or two really egregiously blown calls? Yes, maybe your team was victimized by a out-of-nowhere penalty or a dopey non-flag. It might've cost the club a win, but over the course of the season most fans know that the horrible calls will be balanced out by generous rulings. The law of averages and probabilities generally comes out to a rough equilibrium that the vast majority of NFL enthusiasts can live with.
Now, under the new officials, the fan cannot be sure his team isn't going to get screwed week after week. Through inexperience, ignorance of the rules, the intimidation factor from players and coaches and just being overwhelmed by the speed of the game, the replacement refs cannot seem to call a consistent contest from week to week. Or quarter to quarter for that matter. The new guys make everybody involved in the sport pine for the regular officials.
As much as getting the old referees back will improve the flow and consistency of the National Football League, there are problems with the game that even the best on-field judges cannot not solve. In the midst of Monday's Seahawks-Packers contest, former NFL official Jerry Austin was a part of ESPN's broadcast team. Austin, an expert in the rules who had reffed two Super Bowls, said that the play was not reviewable because simultaneous catches could not be reviewed by instant replay. The next day the NFL contradicted him by saying that, through a rules change that had happened over the off-season, all facets of a touchdown play could be reviewed.
When one of the most respected veteran officials in the game is unsure of the rules, that's probably a sign that the sport is insanely over-legislated. Not only are there too many rules in the NFL, they change every year and they are open to an absurd level of interpretation by the people officiating the game. This leads to fan confusion and annoyance; how can you enjoy a football contest if you don't understand the guidelines under which it is played?
It shouldn't take a law degree to understand how a child's game is conducted. We're reaching a point where the sport is being choked to death by its obsession with legalistic minutiae. Even the best regular official on his best day cannot handle the insane number of factors they have to consider when making a call on the field. This points to a massive structural problem that the NFL has not acknowledged.
Think I'm joking about the league killing itself with too many rules? Consider the NFL's international ambitions. American pro football desperately wants to expand beyond the US market. It's spent billions of dollars promoting games in Europe, Canada and Mexico. Yet non-Americans stubbornly cling to their soccer and largely reject our most successful professional sport. The NFL is baffled as to why their game won't take hold in foreign markets.
Compare football's rules to international soccer's diktats. While both are lengthy, the NFL's guidelines are far longer. More importantly, the NFL's guidelines are far more open to broad and ambiguous interpretation: You can't hit the quarterback except when you can, you can't hit the wide receiver except when you can, this player is eligible to catch a forward pass except when he can't, that player is ineligible to receive a forward pass except when he can, etc.
For people who have not grown up with the pro football game, it's much harder for them to understand the various and sundry by-laws of the NFL. If it's a chore to learn all the wrinkles of the game, most people are just going to stick with what they know. In the case of most non-Americans, that's soccer. As a result, the American gridiron sport not only has to overcome foreign people's love of soccer and their understandable reticence to change, but the over-ruled nature of US football itself.
The fact of the matter is that watching soccer is just about the most boring television program ever. Scoring is minimal and not enough happens. The Julliard level of acting required to draw penalties is unseemly and stupid. But soccer has an enormous advantage: simplicity. It's easy for people to understand. Anyone, from an illiterate shepherd in Zimbabwe to the President of the United States, can quickly grasp the basic concepts of the sport. Within a few viewings, much of the nuances can be gleaned as well.
By contrast, American football is violent, exciting and great to watch on TV. The problem is that the sport is becoming increasingly unknowable. If people cannot understand the game, people will turn it off. I used to think it was cool that the television networks include former officials to help fans interpret the on-field action. Now I see it as part of the problem. You shouldn't need the voice of God to understand an offside call. You shouldn't require ten minutes of instant replay with second by second commentary from a retired zebra to determine who has possession of the ball. In short, the referees shouldn't be this visible and this integral to the functioning of the sport.
So by all means, let's bring the real officials back. Under the current situation, each game is a potential humiliation for the entire league. Getting the regular refs on the field will stop the bleeding and bring a much-needed level of professionalism back to the sport. If nothing else, the normal officials will get the games moving faster, which will be a big help.
Having said that, there are flaws in the National Football League that cannot be solved by the real refs. The game is being crushed under the weight of its own rulebook. If it is to continue to grow both here and across the world, it will have to simplify or it will die.