Put Green Bay-Seattle 2012 on the list. Put it with Bills-Patriots 1998. Put it with the Holy Roller and the Immaculate Reception. Put it with all the NFL games that turned on at the least a dubious call, and at worst a horrendous one.
Oh yeah, the Tuck Rule game. Put that there too. Put that at the top I think. Because there's no way Tom Brady didn't fumble on that hit. Thank goodness after that debacle they changed that rule so nothing like that could ever happen again.
Wait, you mean they didn't?
As much as I like to wear arguments that confront conventional football wisdom -- there really is no arena quite like it to play -- I'm not prepared to tell you that these replacement refs aren't a step down. Maybe a big one. They should be too, because the other guys have lots more experience and that's the end of that. What I will say though is that watching NFL games teeter on hypertechnical calls is much a part of the experience as point spreads and potato chips.
On that fateful snowy 2002 night in Foxboro, Mass., NFL announcers and in turn fans largely accepted Walt Coleman's dumbfounding explanation that Brady didn't really fumble there because he had pump-faked prior to the hit. How long before the fumble the pump-fake occurred was irrelevant to the referee, although out here in the world of common sense it was pretty damn important.
Remember, it's Coleman and the "real" refs that fans and players are crying for now.
It's been more than 10 years and sadly no NFL quarterback has taken my advice to pump-fake on every snap. Tuck Rule plays happen once in a while in football and the results you get are as predictable as a coin flip. The rule is flawed but it's there.
Alas, life in the NFL.
Golden Tate's controversial touchdown catch in Seattle last night falls into the same category for me. Was it, as common sense would lead you to, an interception? Or, was it "simultaneous possession" as one official on the spot declared? Tate's hands were on the ball.
(I'll ignore Tate's blatant pass interference on the play since the same announcers that defended the Tuck Rule for years also used to say how pass interference shouldn't be or generally isn't called on a Hail Mary pass. On ESPN last night Gerry Austin, an NFL official for 27 years, admitted as much. Once again, what's actually written in the rule book takes a back seat.)
Football officiating is entirely about interpretation. For letter-of-the-law guys like me this is very frustrating -- until, of course, you understand that and make peace with it and accept the tremendous amount of randomness inherent to every game. How many NFL games are, like last night's, determined by calls either made or missed by officials? My unscientific estimate is that all of them are. Sure, better teams win games. But many games are close. How much better are those better teams? Was Seattle better than Green Bay last night? It helps to be good. It also helps to be on the right side of what officials see or don't see. This is one reason why the league is so often described as unpredictable, although hardly ever cited. Who could predict which infractions will be called?
Penalties are all over the place in football and if everything was called by the book the sport would be ruined. Consider:
Announcers jokingly say there's offensive holding on every play. Well, is there? How exactly is it decided when it's called and when it isn't? Is there an understood amount of time that must elapse, like when you drop food on the floor and you have five seconds to eat it? Is it the same for all officials? It's not in the book.
What about those pick plays that teams running out multiple wide receivers like to use on third downs? Is that pass interference? Is it not? What about when Rob Gronkowski runs 5 yards downfield and into a linebacker and then they both fall down? What happens then? Usually when I'm watching, nothing happens or the defense gets flagged. But it's Gronkowski looking for contact. Receivers get each other open by rubbing off defenders on crossing routes. How is it determined when that's called? Only if there's contact? I'm confused.
"Illegal contact" is a defender making contact with a receiver more than 5 yards downfield. Although it isn't really because there's contact like that on almost every pass play. I'd describe it as not quite holding but more than touching. Sure, sometimes just touching gets called. When? I've watched every Bills game for 24 years and I have no earthly idea. The next NFL announcer to make this point will be the first.
Let's talk false starts. Linemen are not allowed to move before the snap. Throw your head back quickly, that's illegal procedure. Except when it isn't. Linemen are always moving at the line. They're not perrrrrfectly still. So how much movement is movement? That's not written in the book either, is it. Sunday night a defensive guy moved forward and the offensive guy reacted but he didn't really react because there was a time lapse between the two movements so the penalty was on him and oh my god.
How about forward progress? Most fumbles occur after a runner's forward progress has been stopped. Stopped for a split second maybe, but still stopped. Am I splitting hairs? Well, show me where in the NFL rules it says how long a runner's forward progress must be stopped for. Oh, it's not there? Well then.
I'm tired now.
All this, if you haven't noticed, has absolutely nothing to do with whether the officials are full-time, part-time, of the replacement variety, or chimpanzees.
So forgive me if my reaction is not outrage at the Seattle game but rather, laughter -- only enhanced when Jon Gruden refers to it as "tragic" as he did, or as Steve Young put it, the "ultimate disaster". You really have to get over yourself, football.
By the way, ever notice on that Tuck Rule play that Charles Woodson's hit to force Brady's fumble was helmet-to-helmet? Neither did Coleman that night. Indeed, his return should make all the difference.