"Grand Larceny: Packers Get Robbed of Win in Seattle.''-- Headline in this morning's Oshkosh (Wis.) Northwestern
And this is how it happened: a lack of communication.
Replacement referee Wayne Elliott and his officiating crew, particularly side judge Lance Easley, erred on the biggest stage in American sports because they weren't prepared for the slam-bang instantaneous judgments National Football League officials have to make in seconds. All along, the league has said that lesser officials can be trained to do an adequate job while the regular officials were locked out in a contract dispute with the league. But Monday night's Green Bay defeat, snagged from the jaws of victory, proved that assertion wrong.
The three errors that led to the wrong team winning in Seattle:
1. The missed offensive pass interference call on Golden Tate. Two officials, Easley and back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn, were staring at the crowd of four Packers and two Seahawks as Russell Wilson's pass arced toward the end zone. Just before they all rose to try to catch the pass, Tate shoved Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. Now, it's often said that all's fair in love and war and Hail Mary passes into NFL end zones, but as one former official told me this morning: "You let almost anything go on Hail Marys, but not the blatant knockdowns like that.''
This flag-happy crew threw 28 of them Monday night (four were declined and 24 marked off); Rhone-Dunn or Easley should have thrown a 29th. As former NFL official and officiating supervisor Jim Daopoulos, now an NBC consultant, said this morning: "By pushing [Shields] out of the way, Tate had the ability to be in a better position to make the catch. They should have seen the obvious push. That's a call you have to make."
2. The inability to recognize the difference between simultaneous possession and one receiver trying to steal the ball from a defender. The ball hit Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings first, and he appeared on the replays to pull the ball in and secure it. "It was pinned to my chest the whole time, even when we were on the pile,'' Jennings said afterward. "[Tate] was fighting for it. He was trying to get the ball out.'' The most telling part of the replay, if you watch closely, is that Tate's right arm, as the pile of bodies fall to the turf, flails out for a moment when Jennings has the ball, and then Tate puts his arm back in the scrum. Easley should have been able to see that.
It's hard to watch any replay and rule Tate had simultaneous possession with Jennings, but the pool report after the game with referee Elliott said that was his ruling -- simultaneous possession. And in that case, the ball is awarded to the offensive player. "But look at the play,'' said Daopoulos. "Simultaneous possession is two men catching the ball at the same time. Tate sticking his [left] hand in there is not enough for simultaneous possession.''
3. The lack of a crew conference when the play ends. This was the most egregious mistake of all. With the regular officials, after what appears to be a close call like this one, the side judge and back judge would confer with any other officials who had a view of it, with the referee hustling in to adjudicate. But Elliott was nowhere to be seen, and before he even asked Rhone-Dunn what he'd seen, Easley looked at the pile and shot his arms up and ruled a touchdown. Rhone-Dunn at the same time appeared to be preparing to call a touchback. But Easley's touchdown call usurped Rhone-Dunn's first reaction -- and that was to call the play dead by waving his arms over his head.
If Easley doesn't make that call, he and Rhone-Dunn could have discussed what they'd seen, and Elliott would have had time to run into the end zone to officiate the discussion and make a ruling. A veteran NFL side judge would have realized the crew conference was the way to go here, but Easley is not an experience NFL hand.
Now, as to the replay: Let's be clear about what can and can't be reviewed. Simultaneous possession between the goal lines cannot be reviewed. Simultaneous possession in the end zone can be reviewed. That's an important distinction that many in the media have not made since Elliott went under the hood.
Daopoulos pointed out that a veteran referee -- say, an Ed Hochuli -- would go under the hood and not need advice from the replay official upstairs. But in this case, Daopoulos believes both the replay official, Howard Slavin, and the NFL officiating supervisor, former ref Phil Luckett, were speaking to Elliott while he was looking at the different angles of the replay. Daopoulos believes they should have said to him, "This is an interception." That's what he would have said had he been in the booth.
As for me, I've always taken the NFL's replay rule at its exact word -- there must be 100 percent indisputable evidence that a play should be overturned for the referee to overturn it. I thought Jennings caught the ball. But I've watched the play 25 times, minimum, and is it 100 percent certain that he caught it and maintained possession all the way to the ground? That's a hard call to make.
"My feeling,'' said Daopoulos, "is there's certainly enough visual evidence to overturn the play. When he is under the hood, he is certainly hearing from the replay official and the supervisor.''
The next question, obviously, is this: What were Slavin and Luckett telling Elliott? Obviously it wasn't enough to convince him to overturn the call. I asked Daopoulos whether he thought maybe -- maybe -- Elliott was cognizant of his life becoming a living hell if he overturned a game-deciding play against the home team in the rabid environment this game was in.
"His life is going to be a living hell if he doesn't,'' said Daopoulos.
One final point: A league official told me this morning there is no methodology in place for the league to overturn the officiating gaffe. The call stands. The result stands: Seattle 14, Green Bay 12. In the eyes of America, it will always be Green Bay 12, Seattle 7. But that doesn't matter. Except that it should hasten a resolution to the officiating lockout.
Clearly, the league had been walking on eggshells. There were some bad officiating errors in the first three weeks prior to Monday night -- Tennessee getting 12 free yards on its game-winning field-goal drive, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh getting two extra replay challenges he shouldn't have, both Sunday -- but you can't say a team lost a game it should have won. Until now.
It was only a matter of time before something like this happened. It took until the league's 48th game of the season, but the wrong team winning a game because of a replacement official's blunder could have happened in the first game of the season or the 101st ... or the 267th: the Super Bowl.
Now it's up to Roger Goodell, as the agent of the owners, to do something about it.