Blown call by replacement officials creates nightmare situation for NFL


Millions of “Monday Night Football” viewers saw Green Bay intercept a Hail Mary pass in the end zone, a game-ending play in Seattle that clinched a hard-fought victory for the Packers.

But the replacement official closest to the play saw something very different — a decision not supported by any camera angle — a winning touchdown by the Seahawks.

By Tuesday, the NFL was facing its nightmare scenario. A stand-in official, shoved into the spotlight while regulars are locked out in a labor dispute, had made an incorrect, game-deciding call, handing a defeat to one of America’s most popular teams.

The outrage surrounding the touchdown call — the most egregious of many gaffes by replacement officials during the season’s first three weeks — had fans, players, and even broadcast partners questioning the credibility of the nation’s most successful sports league, which generates $9 billion in revenues annually.

It was the latest fallout in an ugly labor dispute between the NFL and its regular officials. The NFL has taken the same hard-line approach it did last year when it locked out the players.

This time, the money at stake is a relatively modest $100,000 per team each year. That’s what the officials say would be required to satisfy their every demand, most important the continuation of their defined-benefit pension plans. They are part-time employees and earn between $60,000 and $150,000 based on years of experience.

Talks between the league and the NFL Referees Assn. resumed over the weekend with a federal mediator and continued Tuesday, although there is no indication the league is moving swiftly to resolve the labor dispute and lift a lockout that has been in place since June.

In a statement issued late Tuesday the NFL said there is “broad agreement that the quality and consistency of officiating can and should be improved. How to accomplish that is a critical issue separating the two sides in this negotiation.”

The league continued: “While the officials’ union would like to turn this into purely an economic dispute, we have told the union and the federal mediator that we are prepared to make reasonable economic compromises and that we will invest more money in officiating as long as it assures long-term improvement.”

The crews of replacement officials were cobbled together over the summer and are composed mainly of officials who previously worked at the high school, junior college, and small college levels. Unlike in 2001, the last time replacements were used, there are only a few with experience working major college games. This time, most of those college officials are watching this labor dispute from the sideline, in support of their NFL brethren.

“These games are a joke,” tweeted Fox analyst Troy Aikman, a Hall of Fame quarterback.

Compared to others, that assessment was tame.

On his weekly radio show in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers apologized to fans for the state of the league.

“Our sport is generated, a multibillion-dollar machine, by people who pay good money to come watch us play,” he said. “And the product on the field is not being complemented by an appropriate set of officials. The games are getting out of control.

“Like I said in the first week, I’m OK with replacement refs as long as they don’t have a direct impact on the game. Obviously, last night there was a direct impact on the game on multiple plays. But my thing is I just feel bad for the fans. They pay good money to watch this. The game is being tarnished by an NFL that obviously cares more about saving some money than having the integrity of the game diminished.”

Michael Arnold, lead negotiator for the officials, did not respond to requests for a comment.

Rogers wasn’t on the field for the play in question. On the game’s final play, with Seattle trailing by five, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson threw a 24-yard pass into a cluster of players in the left corner of the end zone. Seattle receiver Golden Tate shoved a defender in the back, knocking him to the ground. Packers safety M.D. Jennings appeared to make the interception, although Tate reached in as well.

Jennings said the ball “was pinned to my chest the whole time.”

After signaling opposite calls — the back judge ruled it an interception, the side judge a touchdown — the officials decided Jennings and Tate had simultaneous possession, meaning the tie goes to the offensive player. The play was upheld upon review and Seattle won, 14-12..

Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll made no apologies for the outcome, either, saying during his weekly appearance on a Seattle radio station: “The league backed it up and game over. We win.”

That stunning play came a night after New England Coach Bill Belichick grabbed an official’s arm in frustration in the wake of a loss at Baltimore. The coach is likely to incur a fine from the league, which last week issued a warning to teams and players to be more respectful of the replacements.

The NFL issued a statement earlier Tuesday that didn’t dispute the touchdown call but said Tate should have been flagged for offensive pass interference. Such a penalty would have wiped out any catch and ended the game. Green Bay cannot appeal.

The controversy, and assault on the NFL’s credibility, stretched even to the White House. President Obama tweeted on Tuesday: “NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs’ lockout is settled soon.”

Former NFL official Jerry Markbreit, the referee in four Super Bowls, said the league’s handling of the situation and the performance of the stand-ins “puts a stain on officiating everywhere.”

“It was a nightmare,” Markbreit said of Monday’s game. “But it goes back to the beginning. After the one game, [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell made the statement, ‘Our guys have had extensive training, and they’ll get better every week.’ The fact is that they haven’t gotten better every week, they’ve gotten worse. Because things are all intense, they’re all tight, and they’re not equipped to handle these things.”

In labor issues, Goodell does not have unilateral power but acts on behalf of the league’s 32 owners.

In the city of Green Bay, disbelief. A small group of Packers fans gathered outside Lambeau Field to protest the call. They gathered at the stadium and held homemade signs reading “WE WERE ROBBED IN SEATTLE” and “Speechless IN Seattle.”

Said Brent Weycker, owner of the Titletown Brewing Co.: “I think people felt denial at first. You kept watching the replay and [Jennings] had the ball. Then, they kicked the extra point and it was so final and shocking. We’re all shaking our heads this morning, can’t believe it.”