The replacement officials’ bungling of the final play of the Seahawks’ 14-12 victory over the Packers Monday night was so impossibly incompetent that there was a brief moment when it almost felt like performance art, some sort of bizarre cross-sport homage to Leslie Nielsen’s portrayal of an enthusiastic but distracted umpire in the 1988 comedy, “The Naked Gun.’’
While the call was a joke by at least one definition, it was no laughing matter, something that was emphasized in the serious and smart postgame coverage of the debacle on ESPN and the NFL Network.
The replacement officials, who have spent the first three weeks of the NFL season repeatedly reminding viewers that the locked-out regulars are actually quite competent, may have sent the labor dispute past its tipping point with the decision to award Seattle receiver Golden Tate a touchdown on the game’s final play.
Never mind that the ball was securely wrapped up in the arms of Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings as Tate attempted to wrestle it away, or that Tate committed blatant offensive pass interference on the play, or that one official initially signaled touchdown while another indicated it was an interception.
The Seahawks “won” the game. And the NFL lost face in a game so poorly officiated that the Patriots-Ravens disaster from the previous evening was all but forgotten.
If there is a blessing in the mess — beyond the hope that the backlash might facilitate a settlement to the labor dispute — it’s that the rights-holding television networks have not let their multibillion-dollar business partnerships with the NFL temper their broadcasters’ commentary.
During the Patriots-Ravens broadcast Sunday night on NBC, play-by-play voice Al Michaels and analyst Cris Collinsworth were increasingly critical as the curious calls piled up, culminating with this blunt assessment by an exasperated Collinsworth in the fourth quarter: “No offense to these guys, they’re doing their best, but they’re not qualified to do this job. They’re really not. I mean, that’s become fairly obvious as we’ve gone along.”
Such honesty isn’t surprising from Collinsworth, an outstanding broadcaster who habitually tells it like it is. But it is particularly refreshing — and perhaps a little surprising — when criticism comes from ESPN. The network, which signed a $15.2 billion rights extension through 2021 with the NFL for “Monday Night Football’’ last year, has been accused in the past of placating the wishes of the NFL, most notably in 2004 when it cancelled the controversial drama “Playmakers’’ at the league’s behest.
“ESPN has business relationships with leagues, conferences, and others that are very important to us,’’ said John Wildhack, ESPN executive vice president/production. “We also have a mission to serve sports fans and a commitment to covering the news about those leagues each day on ‘SportsCenter,’ our studio shows, and within our coverage of events.
“We have a responsibility to the people at home who are watching our programs, and as a result, we take our ‘church and state approach’ very seriously as well.”
ESPN did take it very seriously Monday night, not only during the broadcast but in the postgame programming as well, providing candor and clarity amid the chaos.
Engaging, insightful, funny, and charismatic, Jon Gruden is everything ESPN covets in an analyst, but his reluctance to criticize, perhaps born out of a desire to return to coaching someday, sometimes rankles viewers. On Monday, he sounded almost distraught as the officiating blunders mounted.
“Two of the worst calls at the end of a game I can remember,’’ he said. “This is wrong. I don’t feel good about this.”
The other call Gruden referenced was a pass-interference call against the Packers’ Sam Shields on which Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice appeared to interfere with him.
“That’s not defensive pass interference,” Gruden said as the replay revealed in slow motion just how wrong the call was. “I have studied it a long time as well.
“I used to do this for a living. I actually had very little self-control. I’m about ready to jump out of the press box on that call.”
His play-by-play partner, Mike Tirico, was more succinct.
“This is making it hard to watch,” Tirico said. “Every game.”
That is a remarkable acknowledgement coming from a broadcaster whose job depends upon fans watching, yet that tone and sentiment carried across the networks. ESPN’s postgame “SportsCenter,” save for an unnecessary appearance from designated jester Rick Reilly, proved a worthy outlet for attempting to sort out what had happened. (It also drew big ratings, earning a 5.0 overnight from midnight until 1:30 a.m.)
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young was particularly compelling, emotionally articulating his frustration in a manner that almost sounded like a plea.
“Nobody loves football more than me,’’ Young said. “Nobody loves the NFL more than me. You’ve got to be kidding me that I’ve got to watch games turn one way or the other on people that are not competently presented. The NFL is too good for this. It’s too big for this. And it’s hard to watch.’’
The NFL Network wasn’t as harsh as ESPN — there was more credit given to Tate for his “catch’’ than he deserved — but it didn’t position itself as a house organ, either. Analyst Steve Mariucci left no room for interpretation with his feelings on Twitter: “Is there one person on earth that thinks Golden Tate really caught that pass??? Anybody at all??”
Several names and topics related to the game trended on the social media outlet, and a who’s-who of athletes and celebrities chimed in. Tweeted LeBron James, “I simply just LOVE the NFL to much to see these mistakes. I’m sick like I just played for the Packers.” Former Cowboys quarterback and current Fox analyst Troy Aikman didn’t hedge: “These games are a joke.’’ Like Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes after the loss to the Ravens, a couple of Packers took to Twitter to express their frustrations, most notably guard T.J. Lang. “Got [expletive] by the refs. Embarrassing. Thanks nfl,” he wrote.
Overnight, the controversy grew to such magnitude that it ceased being a sports story and expanded to that hazy realm between news and pop culture. Matt Lauer interviewed ubiquitous NFL reporter Peter King on the “Today Show,” while Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb chimed in later during “The Scoop” segment on the same program before getting to the earth-shattering news of Carrie Underwood complying with a 12-year-old boy who requested a kiss at her concert.
The story even accomplished the supposedly impossible: It transcended partisan politics. It was a centerpiece on CNN.com for much of the day, and Fox News also played it prominently. President Obama weighed in late afternoon, tweeting, “NFL fans on both sides of the aisle hope the refs’ lockout is settled soon. –bo.”
Allegiances aside — Democrat, Republican, ESPN, NFL Network — that’s something everyone agrees on. Except maybe in Seattle.