RENTON, Wash. -- I was 30 yards away from the play when it happened, and I'm still not entirely sure what I saw.
Former Yahoo Sports compadre Mike Silver was to my left, Liz Mathews from the local ESPN Radio affiliate was to my right, and we were on the home team's sideline, watching Seattle's CenturyLink Field go completely bananas. The occasion was Golden Tate's game-winning touchdown catch against the Green Bay Packers last Sept. 24 with no time left on the clock -- or, perhaps it wasn't. Tate caught the ball in the air, but the NFL later ruled that he should have been called for offensive pass interference as he pushed defensive back Sam Shields before the catch was made.
Replacement official Wayne Elliot's crew ruled that Tate and Packers safety M.D. Jennings had simultaneous possession of the ball in the end zone, and under NFL rules, the ball went to Tate. According to the league, that aspect of the play was not reviewable, though it appeared that Tate took his hand off the ball while Jennings did not, which would have voided the catch and ended the game. Thus, the "Fail Mary" call was burned into NFL infamy.
As I walked from the field to the press box to try to put what had just happened together in some sort of coherent form, all sorts of things were happening. The league and the NFL Referees Association almost immediately resumed talks to end the lockout of the actual officials, Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang went on a Twitter rant-fest that turned out to be one of the most retweeted in the history of social media, and the team that lost, 14-12, was left wondering what might have been.
Eleven months later, the Seahawks are in Green Bay, waiting for their Friday night rematch with the Packers -- this time, it's at Lambeau Field, and this time, actual qualified NFL officials will be in charge of the thing. Aside from Tate and replacement side judge Lance Easley (who has extended his 15 minutes of fame far beyond its breaking point with television appearances, a book and an appearance at a charity softball game organized this summer by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman), few involved feel like talking much about it.
Even Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, the beneficiary of the call, had little to say on the subject this week.
“Well, it was a nice play and all that," Carroll said on Tuesday. "I think that it’s just a statement that over years and years and years, stuff happens and it doesn’t always work out exactly the way you see it when you look at it the second or third time. It’s been happening for years. It’s just unfortunate for their side that they came out on the short end of that deal. It shows you the human aspect of the game, and it shows the replacement human aspect of the game. When [Easley] looked on the ground, he saw that both [players] had the ball, so he called it a touchdown. I don’t know what another official would have called. Another official might have caught the push. That was legit.”
In a larger sense, as he told me on Thursday, Carroll thinks the 46-yard, 46-second scoring drive -- legitimate or not -- helped his young team believe that it could get things done when situations seemed especially tough. It wasn't pretty -- then-rookie quarterback Russell Wilson completed two of five passes on the drive (or one of five, depending on your point of view), but it set the stage for other comebacks later in the season.
"Whenever you have an opportunity to win in dramatic fashion, regardless of how it happened, and you get it done, that’s a big boost to your mentality," said Carroll, "because you know that you can get all the way down to the last play and still make something happen. If you keep competing, something good can happen, so those lessons are strong in that regard. That game was significant, and as crazy as it was and how it all turned out ... that isn’t part of it. You just have to keep hanging. It did start us with a strong belief that we can turn things around late in the game.”
Carroll's quasi-admittance of the bad call probably wouldn't do much for Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, who was even more tight-lipped than usual when asked about it.
“I don’t need to think about it; I’m always reminded of it,” the coach said on Tuesday.
McCarthy made a call to Elliot to offer his support after he heard that the leader of the crew that made the call was going through a tough time. He handled it with class and grace, and that's where he would prefer to leave it.
Jennings, who has said he's reminded of the play all the time, would especially like to move along. Good luck with that notion this week, of course.
“It’s something that’s stuck with me, unfortunately,” he said Tuesday. “But it’s something I’m trying to get over. I don’t want to be remembered by that play.”
And while Jennings would like to mark this down as just another preseason contest, he understands that it will be tough to do -- especially if Tate gets anywhere near the end zone.
“It’s just a football game. Regardless of preseason or regular season, you’ve got to go out there and give it your all, regardless of which team takes the field. You’ve just got to do your thing.”
Asked what he might do if he "does his thing" and makes it into the end zone on Friday night without controversy or complaint, Tate said this week he'll try to keep things under the radar.
“We’ll see. We’ll see," Tate said. "We will have a little fun with it. You know, keep it within the rules. I don’t want to have to deal with a fat fine for spiking the ball or something like that.”
Tate has bigger fish to fry. Last year was a bit of a breakout season for the 2010 second-round draft pick, and the Seahawks are expecting even more of him this season with free-agent acquisition Percy Harvin out for at least two months with a hip injury and Sidney Rice dealing with his own maladies. Tate has the talent to be a top-caliber receiver in the Steve Smith mold; now, it's about putting it all together.
"We don’t go into games thinking, ‘Oh yeah, this is preseason, so let’s go out there and half-tail it,’" Tate said about his team's current approach. "We’re trying to get better. We’re trying to see how good we can get this year. This is going to be a great challenge, just like last week was. We’re excited about the opportunity. We all know what happened last year with Green Bay, so I’m sure that they are ready to prove people wrong or right, whatever they want to do. We’re just going to go out there and play championship football. It’s as simple as that.”
For the Packers, it may not be as simple as that, but the ghosts of that weird evening are safely locked up in the CLink. It's time for everyone to move on, though a couple of players on that 2012 Packers team have sent Tate mementos of the evening. Defensive back Charles Woodson, now in Oakland, sent him a bottle of wine from his "24 Wines" vineyard in Napa Valley with the message "Touchception." Someone sent Tate a picture of the play that was autographed by Jennings, with one added word: "Robbed." According to the Packers, Jennings didn't send it to Tate.
Will Tate send the picture to its sender? “No. I’m just hopefully going to score a touchdown this week.” That accomplished, he could celebrate with a nice bottle of wine.