It has been almost two days since a call made with zero seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s game gave the Seattle Seahawks their second win of the season, and the Green Bay Packers their second loss. The nationwide outburst of anger at the outcome of the game, in which replacement side judge Lance Easley ruled a Hail Mary pass thrown by Russell Wilson (off, it turns out, an incorrectly called play in which some Seattle receivers ran the route Wilson called while others ran the play they believed he meant to call) a touchdown, was directed at multiple officiating mistakes on that one play. Much of that anger stemmed from a string of other blown penalty calls and had, by the end, built to a crescendo that is still reverberating.
The first officiating mistake that occurred on the Hail Mary play was the failure to flag blatant offensive pass interference by Seattle receiver Golden Tate when he pushed Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields to the ground prior to the catch. Because the Seahawks were at fourth-and-10 with the game clock at 0:00, a pass interference call here would have ended the game at 12-7, Green Bay getting the win. However, pass interference was not called, and there was no recourse after that; Rule 15, Section 9 of the NFL Rule Book notes penalty administration is not reviewable in instant replay.
The play, in which Packers safety M.D. Jennings and Seahawks receiver Golden Tate both leaped for and gained some possession of the ball on their way to the ground, was a Seattle touchdown because the officials ruled it a simultaneous catch. Concerning simultaneous catches, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5 states that “if a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers.” Possession went to Seattle, and because side judge Easley had already signaled for a touchdown despite back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn waving his arms to stop the clock, the call on the field became a touchdown.
That sequence of events, once set in motion, raised the standards for review considerably. Elliot, Easley, and Rhone-Dunn, along with the replay officials in the booth who advised them in the final call, then, again according to Rule 15, Section 9, would have needed “indisputable visual evidence” to reverse the decision on the field and rule a Jennings interception.
The above sequence of events hinged on Jennings and Tate having equal possession of the ball, but it is impossible to see how the referees arrived at that call. In the replay, Jennings clearly rises above the scrum, vying for the ball, catches it in both hands, pulls it into his chest, and maintains control all the way to the ground. Tate gets his left hand on the ball initially, but his right hand clearly comes loose on the way down.
The Rule Book’s provision on simultaneous catches further states “it is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.” This is exactly what appears to have happened. So after a blown pass interference call that would have ended the game, we have a ruling which, when reviewed (simultaneous catches are reviewable only in the end zone), requires such a stringent standard of indisputable evidence that to reverse the call to interception at that point would have been procedurally impossible.
All that is reviewable for a simultaneous catch, the only available option to overturn the ruling, is A. whether the ball hit the ground, and B. who had possession of it. Replay officials determined that there was not 100% indisputable evidence that Jennings had possession of the ball – officials who, it’s important to note, are not replacements. The outcome was effectively decided from the moment Easely shot both his arms straight into the air.
Some thought the league would retroactively overturn the ruling in a statement Tuesday, but the league only affirmed the missed pass interference call, and upheld the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling of touchdown due to lack of indisputable evidence.
The two final blown calls of the night were not the only egregious errors. Both the Packers and the Seahawks were the beneficiaries and victims of an alarming number of penalties (24 in total) which extended some drives and ended others. But that fact is not what is fueling the outrage from this particular game – this has been a headline through all three weeks of this season.
What happened Monday night is what we all feared would finally come to pass, that a bad call made by an inexperienced crew not prepared for the speed and rigor of an NFL game, decided the outcome of a game incorrectly. The Packers have fallen to 1-2 and the Seahawks were hoisted to 2-1, and the fiasco may very well have playoff implications. But the conclusion to Monday’s game has not only robbed a win in the standings from the Packers and their fans, but also, in spirit if not in the record books, from many Seahawks players and fans who have a bad taste in their mouth about it.
Ultimately, the issue extends far beyond wins and losses. It has affected player safety, fairness, and above all, the standard of integrity in the NFL. The league has always upheld the sanctity of the shield, but the shield has never looked so tarnished.