NFL’s Fail Safe Fails On Monday Night Football

Officiating errors happen.

Especially when you take high school refs and put them under the NFL microscope. Then you magnify that focus even more by putting replacement refs in the biggest game of the week, the one watched by everyone at the same time. Even with the real refs the worst time for a bad call to happen is when everyone is watching live. With social media the backlash is immediate and all encompassing. Even people who weren’t watching turned on Sportscenter to see the aftermath of the debacle.

Catch or no catch, touchdown or interception, this play represented a failure of the NFL’s fail safe instant replay review system, the NFL’s own BP oil spill.

Even the best designed systems fail.

And make no mistake, the NFL failed on Monday night.

But first, if you’re one of the fifteen football fans who has not yet seen the play, here it is:

As you can see, the refs giving contrasting signals will become the iconic image of the NFL’s replacement ref era, but let’s break down this “Fail Mary” on a deeper level.

1. Think about how rare this situation is, no Monday Night football game has ever ended on a hail mary simultaneous possession decision.

Even if this play is ruled correctly, it’s a really damn difficult call.

Why?

Because simultaneous possession is a judgment call that isn’t subject to review. (Edit: Peter King reports that simultaneous possession in the end zone is reviewable. Doesn’t this make things even worse?)

This was the perfect storm of NFL futility, proof that even a higher power hates replacement officials.

2. Real refs could have blown this call too.

Lost amid the categorical derision of NFL replacement refs has been this fact: regular refs screw up too.

Often, badly.

That’s because being a good ref is a really difficult job.

Could a real NFL ref have blown this call? Absolutely.

It may have been much less likely, but it definitely could have happened.

3. The NFL said replacement refs were okay because their calls were reviewable.

But not all plays are reviewable.

Enter last night’s debacle, which isn’t reviewable. (Edit: Today Peter King said it was reviewable. So which is it? The NFL still hasn’t issued a comment.)

The NFL’s fail safe failed because the replay rule wasn’t expansive enough.  

4. If this debacle has taught us anything it’s that true talent is rare in reffing just like it is in quarterbacking.

And that talent is refined by hours and hours of laborious work at perfecting that craft at the highest level.

Would you use a replacement mechanic, a replacement doctor, a replacement lawyer, a replacement CEO, a replacement quarterback?

No, you want the professionals, the ones who have done it all before. Those professionals might still make a mistake, but the probability of those mistakes occurring is reduced.

The NFL’s biggest error here, as I’ve been saying since this mess began, was its belief that elite talent is replaceable.

It isn’t.

5. Should Roger Goodell reverse the game’s outcome?

Wow, that would be insane. 

But he has the authority to do so under Rule 17 Section 2. 

The question is this, was this enough of a reffing failure to make that decision necessary? In other words, was this something more than a failed judgmental error? I think you can make the case that it is given the replacement refs role in the decision and the fact that replay blew the call. But if Goodell admits that the replacement refs are substantially worse than the real refs, he’s lost his negotiating power with the old refs. Ultimately if Goodell did reverse the game’s outcome would that cause even more of a public relations mess for the NFL? Or could this situation be so unique that it’s unlikely to occur again for a generation or more?

The commissioner is damned if he does act and damned if he does nothing. That’s what happens when fail safes fail.

6. Finally, how bad are high school refs?

The fact that high school refs have failed under the bright lights of major football will surprise no one who has spent any time whatsoever around high school games.

If anything, this just shows us how often lower level football games are blown via bad officiating calls.

It happens all the time.

Why?

Because being a good official is a rare talent.

Ending Monday Night Football on a call like this is a disaster for the NFL, but can you imagine if the Super Bowl ended on this call?

The NFL issued a full statement just moments ago.

Here it is:

“In Monday’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks, Seattle faced a 4th-and-10 from the Green Bay 24 with eight seconds remaining in the game.

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass into the end zone. Several players, including Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate and Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings, jumped into the air in an attempt to catch the ball.

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.

When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball. Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.

Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.

Referee Wayne Elliott determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.

The result of the game is final.

Applicable rules to the play are as follows:

A player (or players) jumping in the air has not legally gained possession of the ball until he satisfies the elements of a catch listed here.

Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the NFL Rule Book defines a catch:

A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:
(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).

When a player (or players) is going to the ground in the attempt to catch a pass, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 states:

Player Going to the Ground. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5 states:

Simultaneous Catch. If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball.”

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