SEATTLE – Several hours after the completion of one of the more memorable games in Monday Night Football history, Marshawn Lynch was sitting in a private room in the back of the Metropolitan Grill, celebrating a thrilling, last-second victory with friends and family members over big steaks and fat lobsters.
Then, with the flick of a remote control, Big Brother appeared and left a rancid taste in the Seattle Seahawks halfback's mouth.
A waitress pointed the remote at the large mirror on the wall behind Lynch, and it suddenly morphed into an enormous, high-definition television screen. Within seconds, Lynch craned his neck and joined his dining companions in viewing a replay of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson's 24-yard touchdown pass to wideout Golden Tate, giving the Seahawks a 14-12 triumph as time expired and sending 68,218 fans at CenturyLink Field into hysterics.
As Lynch watched Packers safety M.D. Jennings snatch the pass out of the sky and pull it to his chest while Tate, who had blatantly pushed off against Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields, belatedly latched on one arm at a time, the running back's eyes grew big and his jaw dropped low. The room was dead silent as the realization gripped Lynch and his companions: Like most of the viewing public, they now understood that the Seahawks had received an extraordinary gift from the replacement officials.
"We didn't win that game," someone at the table said, and nobody made a peep to challenge him.
By the time Lynch left the restaurant early Tuesday morning and, while waiting for his ride to arrive, reassured a group of Packers fans on Second Avenue almost apologetically that their team would bounce back from this bitter defeat, it was clear the league's already problematic officiating lockout had reached critical mass.
Dramatic as it may sound, it's quite possible that history will look back on Tate's illusory jump-ball touchdown as the moment the NFL jumped the shark.
The outcry over the replacement officials' game-deciding call (and the failure of the non-replacement replay officials to overturn it) crystallized the brewing anger toward NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners he represents, whose collective insistence upon securing a favorable contract with the regular officials has clearly compromised the game's integrity.
In the hours that followed, I heard from numerous current and former players and coaches – and not just because I got some unplanned TV time with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the aftermath of Tate's catch/non-catch – who were aghast at the conspicuous intersection of incompetence and injustice.
A player on one of the Packers' NFC North rivals who should have been heralding the outcome instead decried the play as "the worst call in NFL history." A veteran NFL assistant went even further, saying, "Oh, it's really bad. It's Tuck Rule bad. Rodney King bad."
Memo to Goodell: That's bad.
Can't we all just get along? Not, apparently, when a staredown over money exists, and the owners are willing to put their own short-term economic interests over the quality of the product and the equality of competition. And while the anger surrounding one flawed finish might not put a dent in the bottom line, this regrettable Monday Night Mistake has the potential to stand as a seminal moment, a bullet that could penetrate the NFL's Kevlar vest of invulnerability.
For the nation's most popular spectator sport to survive and thrive, there needs to be a perception of fairness, and a sense that the events that play out to the masses in high-def are being officiated with the highest degree of expertise. In ramming crews of tentative and obviously overmatched replacement officials down the public's throats for three regular season weeks and counting, the NFL is asking its customers to suspend disbelief, with the same just trust us presumption of which so many politicians are often deemed guilty.
In that sense, the comparison of Tate's catch/non-catch to the Tuck Rule (or the Immaculate Reception, the Vinny Testaverde phantom touchdown, the numerous Bill Leavy errors that helped doom the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, or whatever dubious officiating decisions of past years one might choose) might be misguided. The more apt analogy might go back a quarter-century to the 1987 players strike, when the league enlisted replacement players who would form the nucleus of their respective teams for three "games" which counted in the standings.
If the Packers (1-2) miss the playoffs, or if the Seahawks (2-1) edge out another team for a postseason birth by a single game, the stain of Monday's game will linger for a long time. Green Bay's players, coaches and fans have a right to be furious, as do the bettors who lost money because of the officials' blunder, and the fantasy players who tasted defeat thanks to the last-second scoring play.
It's a shame, because the game was notable for several other reasons, including the Seahawks' eight first-half sacks of Rodgers and the shrewd adjustments Packers coach Mike McCarthy made at halftime to protect his quarterback and spur his team back from a 7-0 deficit.
And while this was a great way for Wilson to complete his third NFL game, he surely would have preferred that his magical comeback had been capped by a completion that survived the legitimacy test. As it was, the pass was a mini-miracle, given that Wilson, Y! Sports has learned, called the wrong play in the huddle before lining up for the fourth-and-10 attempt with eight seconds remaining.
Instead of sending three receivers to the left corner of the end zone where Tate and Jennings ultimately fought for the ball, Wilson mistakenly called a "Waggle" play which called for him to roll right while several receivers ran underneath routes. Some Seahawks ran the play Wilson called, while others ran the one he was supposed to have called. Whatever – after he rolled right, drifted back to his left and planted at the 39-yard line before unleashing his high pass to the end zone, it all worked out in the end.
Except, in the long run, it may not have worked out so well. For one thing, Monday night's shady finish was another blow to Goodell's authority in the eyes of many players, who struggled to reconcile the commissioner's insistence on protecting the shield with this power play that has turned the officiating situation into a mockery.
One NFL assistant admitted to me Monday that because the replacement officials have been so tentative and obviously overwhelmed, attempts to intimidate and bully them into favorable calls are rampant. As another former player put it, "The NFL is all about intimidation. We prey on the weak – and these [replacement officials] are the weak."
Given the league's massive popularity and tremendously favorable economics, it seems hard to imagine a world in which the NFL isn't a strong, sustainable force. Yet I'm convinced Monday's gaffe was a watershed moment, and I worry it might trigger a downward spiral that takes on a life of its own.
Here's another analogy, one that I find a bit scary: If the powers that be don't watch out, might the NFL become like boxing?
After peaking during Muhammad Ali's heyday in the '70s, boxing has largely become a fringe sport over the past two decades for two primary reasons: The obvious brutality and toll it takes upon the men who compete; and the fishy decisions that have engendered a pronounced lack of faith in the integrity of the matches.
Given the growing concern surrounding head trauma and its haunting connection, perceived or proven, to the demise of so many gridiron warriors, the NFL has a serious health-and-safety issue to confront. And if the fans start to perceive the officiating to be as untrustworthy as that of ringside scorecards, the league will have an equally daunting problem on its hands.
Goodell, too, may have a problem: While the owners seem staunchly supportive of the commissioner, who early this year signed a lucrative contract extension through the 2018 season, it will be interesting to see if the players view him as vulnerable – and apply their prey on the weak mentality accordingly.
I hope I'm just being an alarmist in the wake of a crazy game, and I expect Goodell to remain in his job for a long time – but I don't think I'm overstating the reaction, or what is ultimately at stake.
Of this much I am certain: As Lynch, his grandmother and several friends and business associates left that downtown Seattle steakhouse early Tuesday morning, they seemed a bit less exultant about the victory over the Packers than they had before that mirror became a TV screen, allowing them to see a sobering replay of the faux touchdown that rocked the football world.
"It's not like we did anything wrong," Lynch said, shaking his head, as he stood on Second Avenue. "We have nothing to apologize for."
He's right – the Seahawks don't. The owners do, however, and so does Goodell. And as long as this increasingly reckless lockout lasts, any after-the-fact apologies will seem as hollow as the football that Jennings pulled to his chest.
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