One official raised both arms into the air, signaling touchdown. The other official waved his arms over his head, signaling touchback. Between them were two players fighting for possession of the football in the end zone.
Game-winning touchdown or game-ending interception?
Flip a coin. Side judge Lance Easley and back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn were at odds.
If you’re a football fan you remember the moment. It was Sept. 24 of last season, before a national television audience on Monday Night Football. The Seattle Seahawks were awarded a touchdown on the game’s final play, which gave them a much-needed victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Chaos ensued. Talking heads across the country weighed in. Fans howled. The replacement officials working the game appeared as clueless as Asuka Brown defending her decision to leave John Farrell off her Manager of the Year ballot.
The outcome of games were being reversed (not to mention wagers and football pools) by these incompetent replacement boobs. The NFL’s credibility was at stake. Something had to be done. That’s what everyone said.
Remember when the full-time officials returned for the next weekend’s games?
Remember how they were treated?
How they were welcomed back with standing ovations, like heroes returning to the scene of their greatest triumph?
Remember how coaches, players and fans breathed sighs of relief because order, they said, was now restored?
How has that worked out?
How many people were cheering last Monday night, other than the Carolina Panthers and their fans?
How ironic that it happened again in a nationally televised game. The yellow, apparently phantom flag that was thrown to the end zone turf as the clock ran out on the New England Patriots, and then picked up, was not as egregious a mistake as last year’s fiasco. But it was a fiasco just the same.
The official at the back of the end zone who tossed the flag felt there was pass interference on the play, preventing Rob Gronkowski from making an attempt to catch the game-winning touchdown pass from Tom Brady.
He was talked out of it in the blink of an eye.
As the Patriots prepared for a final, un-timed down from the 1-yard line, head referee Clete Blakeman announced that there was no penalty on the play. Essentially, like Gilda Radner, he was saying, “Never mind.”
He then stated, “The game is over.”
Where’s Walt Coleman when you need him?
No explanation was offered to the national TV audience or to the fans in the stadium. “Trust us on this. We know what we’re doing. You can all go home now. Drive safely,” Blakeman might have added.
Eventually, we learned that pass interference was waved off because . . .
Well, that’s a good question. Initially, we were told that the ball was uncatchable because it was under-thrown. Then we were told that the interception and the pass interference took place simultaneously, thus negating any penalty. Asked after the game if the decision was the correct one, Blakeman answered, “I think so.”
And I “think” I might win Powerball next week, too.
Some people contend that it would have been a ticky-tack call to make at the end of a game. Officials should not be deciding games with laundry on the field, or so goes the philosophy. The Patriots should not have let it come down to that. Besides, there could be an argument that Gronkowski had no chance to make a play on the ball.
Ticky-tack calls are as old as the NFL. No one knows this better than Patriots’ fans, who have been on both sides of the equation. Just ask defensive lineman Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton, who was hit with a highly questionable (under the rules at the time) roughing the passer penalty that cost the Patriots a win against the Oakland Raiders in the 1976 playoffs. Ask Brady, who benefited from the infamous “Tuck rule” in the 2001 playoffs against the same Raiders.
The list of controversial calls that have determined games cuts across decades and has affected virtually every NFL franchise in one way or another.
The Patriots have now been victimized twice this season with game-deciding calls, depending on your point of view. A never-before-seen penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for “pushing a teammate” during a 56-yard field goal attempt led directly to the Jets booting the winning kick in a 30-27 overtime win on Oct. 20. Now this.
One can’t assume that the Patriots would have gone on to beat the Jets in OT, just as we have no idea if they would have scored the winning touchdown from the 1 with a final play on Monday night. But shouldn’t they have had the opportunity in both cases?
Once a flag hits the ground, doesn’t that mean the official who threw it is confident a penalty has occurred? If so, how could he be talked out of it so quickly?
Something tells me that somewhere Lance Easley and Derrick Rhone-Dunn were smiling on Monday night. And that Clete Blakeman is unlikely to be welcomed with a standing ovation the next time he visits Gillette Stadium.
Rob Duca was an award-winning sports columnist for the Cape Cape Times for 25 years. His work has also appeared in numerous other publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, Yankee magazine, Cape Cod Life and Golf & Leisure Cape Cod