When it comes to the man-made disaster that unfolded in the end zone Monday night in Seattle, has anything in the way of NFL controversies ever felt so entirely inevitable and utterly avoidable, all at the same time?
Sadly, this is the way it had to end in the ridiculous saga that is the replacement refs experiment -- in total chaos, on a nationally televised stage, with indecision and incompetence on full display. Even though the NFL has pretended for weeks that a debacle of this magnitude couldn't happen, the rest of us could see it coming from miles away, knowing a firestorm would be unleashed when it did.
Monday night was that mother of all tipping points. Monday night was "the big one'' that had been predicted, but never really prepared for. And Roger Goodell's league richly deserves the bitter and costly recriminations that are engulfing it now.
After that victory got taken from Green Bay and handed to Seattle Monday night at CenturyLink Field, how can commissioner Goodell and the rest of the NFL hierarchy ever again trot out that "protect the shield'' stuff with a straight face? If we're talking about the all-important integrity of the game, it starts with the on-field product and convincing fans that a game's final outcome is just and fair -- at least as much as is humanly possible.
But after this self-inflicted wound by the NFL, Goodell's mantra is going to ring hollow for a very long time. And over what? For a league that generates billions, the dollar amount being negotiated is akin to the NFL throwing its excess change into a jar at the end of every day. Whatever benefit the league once saw in its fight with its own officials, that has been long rendered not worth the risk it took to pursue and achieve those gains. File this one under: Not broken, didn't need fixing.
It boggles the mind that the NFL was somehow able to avoid the looming catastrophe that was the labor standoff with its players in 2011 -- to great rejoicing from almost all concerned -- only to allow this season's labor battle with the referees to taint the game and put the league back on crisis footing.
At least in terms of the ugly and messy players lockout, big issues were ostensibly at stake. There was a lot of money on the table to be divided, and the two main principal components of the game -- players and ownership -- were deciding the game's financial future and laying the groundwork for the next decade of their relationship.
But in the case of the referee issue, at what price glory when it comes to the league winning this war? The league, in essence, created this problem for itself, came up with a bad solution to address the problem, then tried to insult our intelligence by telling us repeatedly that there really wasn't a problem with which to be concerned. Nothing to see here, move along, the NFL keeps saying.
You can argue that the revenue-producing monolith that is the NFL has not lost money over this, and from a bottom-line sense alone, there has been no real damage done. That's where the league's bullet-proof mentality gets it into trouble, because the NFL has lost things that do matter in this stand-off. Like the respect of many inside and outside the game, who thought the league would never let anything this patently absurd taint its all-powerful brand. And it has lost some of its validity as the king of all sports leagues, with higher standards and a better track record for doing the right thing and improving its game. When the games don't feel entirely on the level, in time nothing else will matter but that.
To use its own words against it, the NFL is doing "an admirable job'' of screwing up a good thing at the moment. The laughable ending to Monday night's game was straight out of a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial, and those overmatched replacement refs have now become a punchline that the league won't be able to prop up, no matter how slick the spin or how diligently anyone in New York toes the company line.
We have indeed reached the "Emperor is not wearing any clothes" stage of the proceedings, and there's no going back after Monday night's Golden (Tate) moment. If you thought the pressure was on the replacement refs in the season's first three weeks, wait until you see what life after Seattle is going to be like for them, starting with Thursday night's Cleveland at Baltimore game to kick off Week 4. For the sake and sanity of some folks who thought they were realizing a life-long dream when they accepted this assignment, the NFL had better get a deal done with the original refs and end the replacements' nightmare scenario.
In its approach to officiating, the NFL has long held the stance that even if it takes too long to come to a decision, the important thing is to get the call right. The "Get it right'' approach is desperately needed now. The replacement refs mistake has already gone on too long and proved too costly. Some of the damage can't be undone. About all the NFL can do now is stop the action, huddle up, and make sure the correct call is made. Never has a little further review and a reversal been more required.