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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Monday Night Meltdown, NFL Integrity Issues (9.25.12)

How many times this past weekend did you hear, "After review, the previous ruling on the field has been reversed"? This phrase acted like a broken record all weekend.

At one point, my television market showed challenges taking place during both the FOX and CBS broadcasts. With challenges taking place all over the league, I'm sure other markets dealt with the same delays.

In a rather comical manner, the Saints-Chiefs game featured five reversed calls. Yes, five. With the phrase constantly repeating itself, I began to wonder if NFL coaches deserve more challenge opportunities.

With replacement officials making so many mistakes, how will coaches know which blatant mistakes to challenge?

I guess one referee found a way to circumvent that problem.

The 49ers-Vikings game took an interesting turn when 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh duped the replacement refs into awarding him two challenges in a span of six plays despite lacking a necessary timeout in order to be able to challenge either play.

Both games served as a microcosm of the incompetency of the replacement referees. Incorrect rulings, procedures, and interpretations plagued the games and delayed the action.

Overall, the refs were once again atrocious.

And that was just on Sunday.

Fast forward to "Monday Night Football," the Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks matchup. For the second week in a row, the primetime matchup featured some serious controversy regarding the replacement referees.

Let's just skip past the numerous incorrect calls throughout the game and focus on the final play.

You know what play I'm talking about.

Just in case, I'll give you the rundown.

The final play featured a Hail Mary pass. Trailing 12-7 with eight seconds remaining in the game, Russell Wilson, quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, took the snap, scrambled, bought some time, and heaved the ball about 40 yards toward the end zone. As the ball flew to the left corner of the end zone, five Packers defenders surrounded one Seahawks receiver.

Then the madness began.

As the ball began to descend, that one Seahawks receiver, Golden Tate, got away with a blatant push on the back of a Packers defender that could have easily been ruled an offensive pass interference. The push went unnoticed by the officials.

Maybe the no-call on this sequence was actually the right call, but a no-call still implies that something, by rule, should have been called. On Tuesday, the NFL officially released this statement, "While the ball is in the air, Tate can be seen shoving Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground. This should have been a penalty for offensive pass interference, which would have ended the game. It was not called and is not reviewable in instant replay." So there's the first mistake, a missed call that would have awarded Green Bay the victory.

Following the push, M.D. Jennings, the safety for the Packers, appeared to come down with the ball for an interception. Jennings caught the ball at the highest point with two hands, thus establishing the fact that he gained possession of the ball first. As Jennings fell to the ground, Tate was able to wrap one arm around Jennings in an attempt to gain possession of the ball. With the ball pinned to his chest, Jennings clearly gained possession prior to Tate's attempt to snag the ball.

Prior is the key word. Simultaneous possession awards the tie to the offense. However, simultaneous possession only comes into play at the initial point of reception. If a player establishes possession first, simultaneous possession no longer determines who caught the ball. Here is the official NFL rulebook on the matter, "It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control."

Throughout the catching process, Jennings possessed two hands on the ball. After grabbing the ball with two hands, Jennings pulled the ball into his chest. After finally reaching the ground with one foot, Jennings held possession of the ball with two hands. On the other hand, Tate initially held just one hand, his left, on the ball. As Jennings came to the ground with two hands on the ball, Tate's right hand gripped Jennings' right forearm. After clutching Jennings for a while, Tate's right hand flailed and he readjusted by wrapping his right arm around Jennings arms. Tate never held two hands on the ball until each player fell onto the ground and rolled.

After a couple seconds of hesitation, two officials ran in to make the call. Both officials looked down at the rolling players, then into the eyes of his fellow official, and then each gave the call simultaneously. One waved his arms in an action that resembles a touchback, indicating an interception and change of possession, thus ensuring the Packers a victory. However, this back judge was overruled by the side judge who threw each arm up in the air to rule the play a touchdown, thus awarding a victory to the Seahawks. By ruling the play a touchdown, the side judge deemed the play a matter of simultaneous possession. This ruling marks the second mistake by the officials, and it is ultimately the reason for the Packers' defeat.

With indecision and a lack of clarity surrounding the play, the officials made their third mistake by not organizing a crew conference. In a play of this magnitude, the officials should have convened, traded perspectives, fully soaked in all of the information, and then allowed the head referee to adjudicate the play. Instead, Lance Easley, the side judge, jumped the gun and signaled the touchdown, thus creating a definitive ruling on the field and making it that much more difficult to later overturn the call through instant replay. By failing to follow the standard operating procedure, Easley served to highlight another substandard officiating blunder.

Prior to the breakdown between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association, the NFL required 10 years of officiating experience with at least five years of experience in major-college football.

Easley's lack of experience clearly jumped to the forefront with his decision to rule the play a touchdown before convening with his fellow crew. With just just four years of officiating experience, and none above the Division III level, I'm not sure if Easley is qualified to be making that ruling.

Easley could have consulted the back judge, Derrick Rhone-Dunne. Dunne, the official that correctly ruled an interception, has nine years of experience in Division I, II, and III — it's not the required 10, but it's a lot better than just four. The head referee, Wayne Elliot, has 21 years of experience in Division II and III. Judging from the experience at hand, it seems like Easley should have conferred with his fellow crew members — big mistake.

Then there's the fourth mistake, the failed replay review. Contrary to popular belief, simultaneous possession can be reviewed — it cannot be reviewed between the goal lines, but in the end zone it is up for review. The touchdown ruling by Easley indicated his belief that the play featured a simultaneous catch. Tate clearly didn't catch the ball all to himself, so Easley must have felt that the catch was simultaneous. After assessing the replay, the officials could have overturned the call and ruled the play an interception. Instead, they stuck with the ruling on the field, a touchdown. How they failed to see Jennings catch the ball first and establish himself as the player with possession is beyond comprehension.

During the replay, the officials failed to find the "100% indisputable evidence" needed to overturn the ruling on the field. Despite possessing the ability to replay the controversial play with slow motion and several viewpoints that seemed to favor Green Bay, it was all for naught because of the need for "100% indisputable evidence."

After a weekend full of "After review, the previous ruling on the field has been reversed," the biggest review of them all came up short. I'm not even sure if the officials realized that they could in fact change the ruling to an interception. Who knows if they understand the rulebook to the extent that simultaneous possession can be reviewed when it occurs in the end zone.

In the end, there were four mistakes on just one play. Tally that up with all of the mistakes throughout the weekend and the first couple weeks of this NFL season, and it all points to a massive failure on behalf of the NFL. Why the NFL? Because the NFL is employing replacement officials. The officials are clearly unprepared to officiate the game, yet here they are deciding outcomes.

What can you say?

Well, first, how about, "Let's get some real officials back out there."

A pretty simple concept, right? Unfortunately, the NFL is the most arrogant league in professional sports due to the fact that it is a multi-billion dollar empire. Something like this isn't going to change anything regarding negotiations. If you truly believe that the real officials will have a deal in hand by this Thursday, then you are far too trusting in the NFL.

Sadly, I don't believe that this game will impact negotiations between the NFL and the NFLRA. The NFL knew something like this could happen when they allowed this labor impasse to occur, so it's not like they are blindsided by this. They surely have considered the possibility that a replacement referee could blow a call and directly impact a game. If they didn't, they are naive, and if they did, they just don't care. Either way, it's disgusting.

You could also say, "I'm going to stop watching the NFL."

While that is a noble concept, its reality is implausible. As Steve Young stated following the prior Monday Night Football matchup between the Broncos-Falcons, "Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand." You aren't going to stop watching the NFL, and you know it. You may be disgusted, but you won't stop — and it's not your fault, we all enjoy watching professional football, and for the time being, this is professional football.

The most damaging sequence just happened to the NFL, but it won't matter. Until the owners begin to lose money, or a high profile owner is knocked out of the playoffs by a blown call — looking at you Jerry Jones — nothing is going to change.

Here we have it, an actual outcome of an NFL game decided by a dubious call made by a replacement official. One call decided a game. One incorrect call. Is the NFL going to change the record of either team involved after the fact? Nope. Is the NFL going to admit fault? Certainly not. Can the NFL do anything at all about the mistake? Yes, but they won't.

The integrity of the NFL just shattered, but it doesn't matter — to the owners at least. Even with a fan backlash, people will still watch in astounding numbers, and revenue will continue to pour into the owners' pockets.

This blown call is full of ramifications, but it hardly effects the owners.

Instead, it effects the Green Bay Packers. They are now sitting at 1-2 instead of 2-1. This loss may impact their chances to win their division or even make the playoffs. We all expect Green Bay to make the playoffs, but as it currently stands, they are sitting in third place in their division.

Conversely, now the Seattle Seahawks are 2-1 instead of 1-2. Along with seven other teams, they carry the third best record in the NFC. This game truly increases Seattle's chances of making the playoffs.

Furthermore, this blown call effects the oddsmakers.

According to reports, an estimated $250 million swung on that final call. One oddsmaker, Danny Sheridan of USA Today, had the highest estimate at over $1 billion! The Packers, three and a half point favorites, would have covered the spread with a five point victory, 12-7. Instead, the Seahawks won by two, 12-14. According to the percentage bet in Vegas, around 75% of bets were placed in favor of the Packers. That's a lot of money lost on one call. Those fortunate enough to have bet on Seattle are jumping for joy, but those who bet on the Packers must feel cheated.

Gamblers weren't the only people to experience the effect of the blown call. Fantasy football owners also felt the repercussions. According to ESPN, over 67,000 ESPN fantasy matchups were decided by that one play. That's a lot of teams experiencing a win or loss due to the Packers defense/special teams or Golden Tate. Considering Tate is owned in just 1.3% of ESPN leagues, let's just say that a lot of people experienced shattering defeat as the Packers defense missed out on a sure interception and then lost fantasy points because the Seahawks scored — the Packers D/ST is owned in 85.1% of ESPN fantasy leagues.

Considering the fallout of this call, the biggest effect deals with the integrity of the NFL. NBA conspiracy theorists have been saying for years that the NBA is fixed. Questionable calls, lotteries, and outcomes have all been thrown out there. After the Tim Donaghy scandal, the NBA had to deal with a legitimate claim regarding the integrity of the NBA. Well, who's to say that these refs haven't been compromised?

We already know that the NFL hasn't done a great job with their background checks. One official was assigned to a Saints game despite the fact that he has expressed a lifelong fandom to the Saints — he even had pictures of himself in Saints' gear on his Facebook. This official wasn't pulled from the game until ESPN analyst, Chris Mortensen, notified the league. Another official worked a Seahawks game in Week 1 against the Cardinals despite officiating Seahawks' regular-season practices for the past three years — he was paid by the Seahawks for those practices, and I happen to remember a lot of questionable calls late in that game.

Who's to say that these replacement officials haven't been targeted by powerful individuals? I'm confident that these incompetent officials are just that, incompetent, but who knows for sure? Their time in the NFL is temporary, and their opportunity to make bank is now or never. There's no doubt that dubious calls have shifted many NFL games. Maybe there's a correlation.

Overall, the integrity of the NFL is under fire. Player safety and on-field play are taking a backseat to labor negotiations. Money rules all. Who's to say it doesn't rule the replacement officials? And if you don't want to believe in that angle, there's still the fact that unqualified officials are deciding the outcome of NFL games. If that isn't enough of an attack on the integrity of the NFL, then I don't know what is. These teams get sixteen chances, and Green Bay just lost one of those chances.

How many more games like this one can the NFL stand? Well, if it means not paying top dollar for real referees, I'm guessing quite a few more.

Asterisk season, anyone?

In the most damning moment of this NFL season, integrity was called upon in order to conclude the game. Unfortunately, the NFL seems to have a selective conscience regarding integrity. After Seattle and Green Bay each left the field following the officiating fiasco, both squads were called upon to come back out and finish the game — you know, since integrity demanded an extra point kick.

Obviously, the NFL needs to maintain the integrity of the game, it's just funny how they are choosing to do so.

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