Three weeks’ worth of criticism and angst over the subpar performances of the NFL’s replacement referees — filling in for the league’s regular ones, who have been locked out by the league in a labor standoff — reached a boiling point when the refs appeared to blow the biggest call of the game, awarding the Seahawks a touchdown on the final play, and thus a 14-12 win, when everyone else in the country seemed to know immediately it was an interception for the Packers.
“Terrible,” President Obama told reporters in response to a question about the game’s ending. “I’ve been saying for months, we’ve gotta get our refs back.”
With the league already teetering on the edge of chaos and mutiny over the state of the officiating over the first three weeks of its regular season, Monday night’s fiasco carried the distinct feeling of a tipping point. The story led NBC’s “Today” show, exploded across Twitter and dominated discourse around water coolers and radio dials.
Not only had the 3½-month lockout of the referees by the NFL’s owners — primarily over the officials’ pensions — reached a critical juncture, where something had to be done for the good of the game and the safety of the players; it also felt as if the NFL was collapsing into itself.
“DISGRACE!” screamed the back page of the New York Post.
“Nightmare scenario,” blared the headline on SportsIllustrated.com.
“The Straw That Broke the NFL’s Back,” touted one of the headlines at ESPN.com.
The NFL’s locked-out referees, although technically part-time employees, undergo rigorous training to master the league’s infamously complex rule book. Their replacements, largely a collection of officials who work high school and low-level college games, have often seemed out of their depth during the first weeks of the season. But no games had been blatantly decided on a blown call — until Monday night.
With the Seahawks trailing, 12-7 and eight seconds remaining, quarterback Russell Wilson launched a 24-yard “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone. Packers safety M.D. Jennings appeared to wrest control of the ball from Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate — an interception — but one of the referees near the play threw up the signal for a touchdown.
As players, coaches, fans and television viewers waited anxiously, the referees reviewed replays for some 10 minutes — and still got it wrong, saying Tate had shared possession of the ball, which, by rule, favors the offensive player. The touchdown stood, the Seahawks had prevailed by a 14-12 score, and the universe, at least as measured in terms of Twitter and talking-head outrage, was about to explode.