Replacement refs are NFL's worst-case nightmare

Posted: September 26, 2012

The NFL's carefully nurtured orderliness disintegrated into self-inflicted chaos Tuesday in the aftermath of a controversial decision by replacement referees that, on the final play of Monday Night Football, transformed a Green Bay Packers victory into a stunning defeat.

A league that had been crossing its fingers while it employed college and semi-pro officials to substitute for the regulars it had locked out over stalled contract negotiations saw its worst-case nightmare unfold on the last play of the Seahawks' 14-12 win in Seattle.

Within minutes, the negative reaction went nuclear as fans, gamblers, players, columnists, commentators, celebrities, and even politicians expressed anger at the incongruity of the ruling, outrage over its potential to impact the NFL season, and frustration with the ongoing labor dispute that caused it.

The furor was ignited by a last-play Hail Mary pass from Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson that looked to be intercepted in the end zone by the Packers' M.D. Jennings.

As the Seahawks Golden Tate tried to wrestle the ball away, two officials arrived. They hovered briefly over the pile of grasping players in apparent indecision. Finally, as one waved his arms from side to side, the other haltingly signaled a touchdown that ultimately gave Seattle a 14-12 victory.

When a replay review of what was subsequently termed a "simultaneous possession" apparently failed to display sufficient evidence to overturn the call, the game was ended and the firestorm began.

ESPN's game analyst, former coach Jon Gruden, suggested to a national TV audience that the officials had handed the game to Seattle and termed their work "tragic" and "comical."

The locked-out officials and the league reportedly returned to the bargaining table Tuesday for a session that sources indicated had been set before Monday night's debacle.

Players, not just from the losing Packers but from around the league and from other sports, tweeted their displeasure, often in angrily profane terms, over this latest in a series of gaffes by the replacement crews.

"NFL C'mon Man!" tweeted Packers wideout Greg Jennings in one of the more reasoned responses. "Can't even be upset anymore. All I can do is laugh. Laugh at the NFL for allowing America's game to come [to] this."

Not surprisingly, the red-hot epicenter of the reaction was Wisconsin, where the Packers, one of the NFC's preseason favorites, fell to 1-2.

In Green Bay, fans flocked to Lambeau Field for a protest demonstration, one carrying a sign that read "Speechless in Seattle." One Wisconsin politician provided constituents with commissioner Roger Goodell's phone number. Another, Gov. Scott Walker, who faced a recall election after a series of what were widely perceived as anti-union measures, urged the league to settle quickly with the officials union.

Newspaper headlines in the state, some with Pearl Harbor-size type and indignation, screamed their unhappiness. "Grand Larceny!" read one in the Oshkosh Journal.

After opening his postgame news conference by telling reporters he would take no questions on the officiating, Packers coach Mike McCarthy later said the call was "very hard to swallow. . . . I have never seen anything like that in my time in football."

Nationally, the incident dominated discussion on social-media sites, on sports-talk radio, and on cable TV networks such as ESPN and the league's own NFL Network.

In New Jersey, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said in a statement that he would introduce legislation prohibiting sporting events in the state from taking place with replacement officials.

U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, a South Jersey Republican who was an Eagles offensive lineman, said the disputed decision might prod the negotiations forward.

"They'll get to the bottom of it at some point . . . being a very large spectator sport they want to keep their clientele happy, and there's not a lot of people happy right now, so that sentiment's going to boil over and get people motivated," Runyan said.

Even President Obama chimed in, saying after returning to Washington from a speech at the United Nations that "NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs lockout is settled soon."

In Las Vegas, where sports betting is legal, oddsmakers said $300 million or more changed hands worldwide as a result of the call. Jay Kornegay, sports book chief at LVH Casino, said the mood of bettors swung wildly.

"We've seen regular refs blow calls. That's always been part of the sport," Kornegay said. "But this one was just a blatant bad call at the end of the game that decided the outcome of the game."

Trying to bandage the gaping wound to its normally tidy reputation, the league released a lengthy statement Tuesday afternoon that, while conceding Tate had interfered with a Packers defender on the play, confirmed referee Wayne Elliott's decision to uphold the call. The officials had called 24 penalties in the game.

"The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today," the statement read, "and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review. The result of the game is final."

There was no immediate comment from the NFL on whether players who criticized the controversial decision on Twitter would be fined.

Earlier in the week, Broncos coach John Fox was fined $30,000 on Monday and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio $25,000 for verbal abuse of the officials during the previous Monday night game. And fines are expected for others who have been critical of the replacements, including Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who angrily grabbed an official after his team lost in Baltimore Sunday.

"These games," tweeted Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, now a Fox broadcaster, "are a joke."

Retired NFL referee Jerry Markbreit told a Chicago sports-talk radio station that the replacements' lack of experience in critical situations was glaring.

"This was a perfect example of it," Markbreit said. "This was a play that was disputed. One official called it no good, one called it good. The duty of the referee, the head guy with the white hat, he should have come downfield and discussed it with both men and figured out which guy had the best look at it.

"He probably could've gotten the fellow that gave the touchdown signal to back off because it was pretty obvious to me and almost everybody else that it was, in fact, an interception. . . . This is injustice against a team that deserved to win this game, and it's terrible."

Though some had speculated the players' frustration with the officiating could lead to a work-stoppage, an NFL Players Association official indicated that wouldn't happen.

"We didn't make the decision to lock the officials out," George Atallah, the NFLPA's assistant director of external affairs told USA Today. "We didn't make the decision to use substandard replacements. We didn't make the decision to put the integrity of the game at risk."



Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.

This article contains information from Inquirer wire services.

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