SEATTLE – Afterward, the scene was almost as surreal as what they’d witnessed with their own eyes on the field.
There they all stood, huddled around three old-school square CRT televisions scattered about the corners of the CenturyLink Field visitor’s locker room, staring up in disbelief, waiting for something – anything – that would make sense.
Instead, all the Green Bay Packers got was another look at the unfathomable: The NFL’s replacement officials ruling that Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate – and not Packers safety M.D. Jennings – had come down with the football for a game-winning 24-yard touchdown to give the Seahawks a stunning – the best word available, since nothing in the English language can sufficiently capture it – 14-12 victory on Monday Night Football.
“You guys suck, bro!” veteran center Jeff Saturday yelled upward at the TV, throwing a towel at it for emphasis. Fullback John Kuhn opted for a one-word expletive. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers shook his head, speechless. By the time he’d reached the podium for his traditional post-game press conference, the reigning NFL MVP had found some words, but not many.
“It was awful. Just look at the replay and then the fact that it was reviewed (and upheld). It was awful,” Rodgers said. “That’s all I’m going to say about it.”
Later, he would say more. “It’s frustrating,” Rodgers said in an epic understatement. “It was crazy after the game. Nobody had any idea what was going on. It seemed like, at first, from my vantage point, the referee in the back, I saw him wave his arms over his head, which means he was calling a touchback. (I have) no idea how the other guy said, ‘Touchdown, Golden Tate’ on the replay. Obviously, (Tate) takes his arm off whatever part of the ball he may or may not have had had. Then they reviewed it and it was upheld.”
Here, in an attempt to explain the inexplicable, is what happened: The Seahawks (2-1), led by former University of Wisconsin star Russell Wilson – a man accustomed to the Hail Mary ending – took over at the Packers’ 46-yard line with 46 seconds to play, trailing 12-7.
After a 22-yard completion to Sidney Rice, followed by three consecutive incompletions, Seattle faced fourth-and-10 from the Packers’ 24-yard line with 8 seconds showing on the clock.
Wilson dropped back, scrambled to buy time, then heaved a prayer toward the end zone. Unlike they were in their NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants, the Packers, with eight defensive backs on the field, seemed ready.
As the ball came down, five Packers (Jennings, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields) and two Seahawks (Tate, and wide receiver Charly Martin) went up, and Jennings appeared to catch it.
“(The ball) was pinned to my chest the whole time, even when we were on the pile,” Jennings said.
Tate, after shoving Shields to the ground from behind, brought his right arm up from beneath Jennings and got his hand on the ball. Back judge Derrick Rhonde-Dunn waved his hands above his head, not signaling for a touchdown – or a touchback, for that matter. But side judge Lance Easley came in from the side and signaled touchdown.
"I told the guys, ‘Don't give up. I've lost a lot of heartbreakers in college right there at the end -- two last year, actually -- and so I know how it feels,’” Wilson said afterward. “At the same time, I know it's possible to score."
Countered Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings: "I think you if you asked Golden Tate to take a lie detector test and ask him did he catch that ball or did M.D. (Jennings) catch that ball, (he'd admit) M.D. caught that. It was clear as day. At least that is what my eyes saw. The officials did a great job out there today."
The play would be automatically reviewed, as NFL rules require, by replay official Howard Slavin and replay assistant Terry Poulos, and Easley’s call was upheld. Referee Wayne Elliott announced it to the crowd, and only after both teams had left the field, did the crew realize that the extra point needed to be kicked. Packers coach Mike McCarthy, assorted other staff and enough players to participate defensively for the extra point, and the game was over.
But the controversy was just beginning.
“Don’t ask me any questions about the officials,” McCarthy said to open his press conference. “So we’ll cut to the chase right there. You want to talk about the game?”
Frankly, no. Asked what he saw, McCarthy replied, “I didn’t see it. It was in the far, far corner. (I) just saw the reaction, like most people, but obviously the communication from our players is they had the ball. I still haven’t seen a replay of the play. I was told M.D. Jennings intercepted the ball.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in all my years of football.”
Speaking to pool reporter Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times, Elliott said, "The ruling on the final play was simultaneous catch. (It was) reviewed by replay. Play stands. (Possession by) both players goes to the offense."
Asked by O'Neil if it mattered that Jennings had both hands on the ball and Tate only had one, Elliott replied, "They both possessed it."
The Packers didn't see it that way, but that didn't matter.
Asked what he told his team, McCarthy replied, “Tell them the truth, you know. We need to move on. We talked about what I felt about the game, everything that happened in the game, to the players. It’s important for us to get back and get ready for the (New Orleans) Saints.”
While McCarthy’s trip along the high road was admirable, his players struggled to follow suit.
“It’s unbelievable, you know?” said Saturday, who is in his 14th NFL season. “At first, I thought they said it was an interception. Then, they said no, so when they confirmed it, I didn’t know if they were confirming the interception or what. I mean, no one was clear on what the call was. It was just, it’s just a frustrating thing to happen.
“At the end of the game, you put it in the hands (of the replacement officials) and you hope they do it right. We work awfully hard throughout the week and throughout the season and one play can significantly affect the outcome of a game, and that’s what we had tonight.”
Asked if he thought the call would lead to a deal between the NFL and the NFL Referee Association, Saturday, who’d been instrumental in talks between the owners and the NFL Players Association last year, replied, “I hope so. I don’t know why it hasn’t already changed to be honest with you. I don’t know why we don’t have the guys who know what they’re doing back. It’s no disrespect to the guys we have. The game’s just too fast. They can’t keep up. It’s just a sad, sad (thing). We need the guys who do it every day and get trained year-in and year-out. From a player’s perspective, this is (difficult). You only get 16 guaranteed opportunities, you know? And to have one end like this is frustrating.”
Woodson felt the same. He’d been on the gut-wrenching end of an official’s call before – in the 2001 AFC Playoffs, in the Oakland Raiders’ loss to the New England Patriots in the infamous “Tuck Rule” – and now, he was trying not to draw any parallels.
“This is early in the season, so we’ve still got a long road ahead. That was a playoff situation and we had to go home after that. I don’t want to compare the two,” Woodson said. “I just looked at the replay, and to me it clearly looks like we had the interception and they gave it to the other team. I mean, what are you going to do? We’ll go back to Green Bay and just continue to get better as a team.”
Asked if that was all he had to say, Woodson smiled.
“That’s all I’ve got,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s all I’ve got.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.