Wexell: A Unique Interpretation

Jim Wexell wonders about the furor over the replacement refs and "The Debacle" in Seattle, because the union refs really weren't all that much better Thursday night.

I was talking to an umpire a while back. He's the head ump of the local association, and a real stickler for rules. In fact, he's what Marv Levy might call an "over-officious jerk."

Eh, some people are like that.

Anyway, this guy was telling me about a hero of his, a high school umpire who had halted the advance of a local softball team in the PIAA state semifinals because of a catcher's balk.

Apparently, the catcher had not performed her duties with precise form during the execution of an intentional walk, and suddenly her season was over.

This umpire relayed the story with both admiration and hearty laughter.

Yeah, that kind of over-officious jerk.

I was thinking about this conversation during the recent brouhaha involving the NFL replacement officials, and how the world was telling me that the very worst call of all-time occurred last Monday night and how we should all refer to it as "The Debacle."

All week long the media hammered away at "The Debacle." News shows featured guests to talk about it, and hosts would ask this question: Was that the worst call of all time?

I hadn't considered it even remotely close to the worst call of all time. I'm not sure which of about 700 bad calls off the top of my head I consider worse than "The Debacle," but I think the one that should stand for all of them, the iconic one, came out of that New England-Oakland playoff game a decade or so back, the call that gave us the incomprehensible "Tuck Rule."

As with the technicality of a catcher's balk, the tuck rule was borne from someone who had his nose in the rule book way too long. Those are folks, I believe, who desire fame for a rules interpretation at which no one else has arrived. Ever.

In the NFL of recent years, these oddball interpretations have become the norm, but they're being legislated in. The head of the officials, or the commissioner, or anyone else in a suit I suppose, spends the offseason poring over the rule book to come up with something new that is seemingly meant to infuriate the average football fan who knows the game and knows what's right and what's wrong when he sees it. But the suit with the nose in the book wants to show you that he's smarter than you, smarter than all of us.

This new fascination with exactness has become tedious, to say the least. It's added another level of bureaucracy to the game which has manifested itself in the form of in-game huddles that take even a longer percentage of time away from the action itself.

That action, according to a 2010 Wall Street Journal study, is all of 11 minutes.

Yep. That's the average time the ball is in play in the NFL. That's it. And they're worried that hard hits are eroding the luster of our great game.

So why do I bring all of this up?

Well, because I want to add yet another level of bureaucracy to your football enjoyment and make myself look intellectually superior with a unique interpretation at the same time. So I've decided to write what no one else has written: that the replacement officials weren't all that bad. And, really, the call on Monday night that allegedly beat the Packers doesn't rank anywhere near the worst call of all time. In fact, that call, it can honestly be argued, may have indeed been the right call.

Let's re-examine – if you're still awake here – what exactly happened Monday night in Seattle.

First of all, the game was – to butcher a Mike Tomlin phrase – un-thoughtfully non-rhythmic. Or, in layman's terms, it was poorly played and the officials hacked away at it along with the players.

There were too many flags, probably because the teams were undisciplined and poorly coached. And yes, there had been better replacement crews, but just as with the regular officials there are good and bad.

So there were too many penalties and the game was dull. And then the Green Bay Packers took a late lead with the help of a lousy pass interference penalty, a penalty that has taken way too much credit for final scores over the years.

But Seattle came back. They were helped by a roughing-the-passer penalty that was smartly called, not because of a late hit but because the pass-rusher hit the quarterback in the knees. That's the rule.

So Seattle got another chance, and they ended up heaving the ball into the end zone. It was a Hail Mary pass, and, as the expert ex-ref who was called into the booth to explain the ending would later say, NFL officials just do not call pass interference on Hail Mary passes. So Seattle receiver Golden Tate did what he was probably trained to do: He pushed a defender out of the way.

No big deal.

But then Tate went up for the ball, and he had one hand locked in with the two hands that the Green Bay defender had wrapped around the ball. Tate's other hand enjoined the "wrap" and it was done so quickly that at normal speed it appeared to be a simultaneous catch.

"Simultaneous!" shouted broadcast announcer Mike Tirico. "Who's got the ball?"

Since – as the expert ex-ref would later say – such a play does not fall under the purview of instant replay, it mattered greatly what the initial call would be.

If it had been Tirico making the call, he would have given it to Tate, because he, like me, thought both players had the ball at the same time. Therefore, the ball should go to the offense.

Replay could do little, but it was a touchdown so replay was used just in case something stood out that was flawed. But the replay showed that it's likely – but not certain – that Green Bay had intercepted the ball.

So broadcast analyst Jon Gruden began complaining. This led to Tirico complaining. And because the officials were scabs and didn't huddle and didn't prolong the game and didn't involve a dozen levels of bureaucracy into the final decision, all Hell broke loose.

Of course the call stood and ESPN went to its "experts."

Gruden, for one, appeared ready to cry. His face was balled up. "I don't like the taste in my mouth," he said as if his mother had just forced kale down his throat.

Trent Dilfer and Steve Young also appeared ready to break down at the injustice of it all. They and Gruden cried so long that it made me wonder whether they had lost thousands on the play.

Then ESPN whined and pined for the real officials, and so too did the rest of the world. The next day the governor of Wisconsin and a certain congressman who's running for vice-president cried about their Packers and how the union officials needed to be given whatever they needed to return.

Yes, these were the same politicians who had recently gone out of their way in an attempt to smash the teachers' unions in their very state.

So, everyone cried long and hard over a play in which the game announcer's gut reaction was to call the play the same way the officials had. It was a judgment call that was certainly a question mark in regular speed and couldn't be overturned by replay.

The replacement refs got the boot, the union officials got their big raises, benefits and pensions, and they returned to a standing ovation by the fans in Baltimore.

Those "real" officials came back to work the Cleveland-Baltimore game the other night, and here is what happened at the end of that one:

* Cleveland, on its next-to-last series, down seven, was called for intentional grounding. Then, apparently, someone said something mean to an official because 15 more yards were tacked on and blamed on the bench and the Browns were suddenly facing a second-and-36, which they couldn't overcome before punting. Meanwhile, no one said boo about the curious 26-yard penalty.

* Baltimore, on the ensuing series, had a 21-yard gain wiped out by a holding penalty. Left tackle Michael Oher became so incensed, and yelled so profusely at an official, that a teammate rushed to intervene. Oher even pushed his teammate, but there was no additional penalty called. And, of course, no one – not even the governor of Wisconsin – said boo.

* Cleveland did get the ball for one final chance to tie the game. On fourth down, the Browns' quarterback threw incomplete. Game over. Except for the flag on the field. Baltimore's defensive end had pushed Cleveland's left tackle in the shoulder – while, I'm pretty sure, the ball was still in the air – and Cleveland's left tackle flopped like a European soccer player. Unbelievably, Baltimore was penalized and Cleveland was given another shot at the end zone.

Nothing was said by the announcers about this ridiculous call. There was certainly no whining, and no one held his breath and turned purple because of a bad taste in his mouth. But Cleveland's pass fell incomplete anyway so nothing really needed to be said.

Then we went immediately to the idiot reporter on the sideline for a vapid interview with a cliché-ridden jock who thanked God and of course the return of the real officials.

No one said they were as bad as the other ones, but of course they were. And why would anyone rip Gene Steratore anyway? He's fit, dresses nattily, wears a straight hat, speaks like a smooth-talking actor into the stadium mike, and comes off like a real pro.

Perception, as they say, is reality, but that's a philosophy that I'll always fight because perception is just that and many times it's NOT reality, not even in the case of a scab replacement official, apparently the lowest form of whale dung on the ocean floor.

Yes, this has been a long and boring story about nothing. This column was nothing more than the call of a catcher's balk, a cry for attention from someone who has nothing better to do.

But you get what you pay for during a bye week, especially coming off a loss and a long drive home from a vacation with a wife who hated every minute she spent at the remote coastal cottage off an isolated mountain road.

However, I promise that before the next column I write I will huddle with my editor and my publisher and quite possibly a suit from New York City, because it's important that you get all the bureaucracy you can out of your next football column – when the real writers return next week.

Steel City Insider Top Stories