2012 Packers–Seahawks officiating controversy
|A screenshot of the ESPN broadcast taken during the play that resulted in the officiating controversy.|
|Date||September 24, 2012|
|Favorite||Packers by 3|
|Announcers||Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden with Lisa Salters|
The 2012 Packers–Seahawks officiating controversy, often referred to as the Fail Mary, arose during the final play of an American football game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks of the National Football League (NFL) that occurred on September 24, 2012 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Washington. In a nationally-televised game on ESPN's Monday Night Football, the Seahawks defeated the Packers, 14–12, in controversial fashion.
On the final play of the game, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw a Hail Mary pass into the end zone intended for wide receiver Golden Tate. Both Tate and Packers defender M. D. Jennings got their hands on the ball while both players were still in the air and attempting to gain possession. The two officials near the play initially gave separate signals of touchdown and touchback, before ruling the players had simultaneous possession, resulting in a Seahawks game-winning touchdown. Prior to the catch, Tate shoved Packers cornerback Sam Shields with both hands, which the NFL later acknowledged should have drawn an offensive pass interference penalty that would have negated the touchdown and resulted in a Packers victory. The lack of a pass interference penalty and the ruling of a touchdown via simultaneous catch were widely questioned in the aftermath of the game, drawing comments from the game's announcers, NFL players, and the media. The NFL subsequently released a statement defending the touchdown ruling.
The controversial ending followed weeks of criticism regarding the quality of officiating by replacement officials employed by the NFL during the 2012 NFL referee lockout. Two days after the game, the NFL and the NFL Referees Association announced they had reached an agreement to end the lockout. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged that the negative attention the game drew to the referee situation was an impetus for ending the labor dispute.
Events of the play
Prior to the play, the Packers were leading the Seahawks 12–7. With eight seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks had possession of the ball at the Packers' 24-yard line with a fourth down-and-10 situation. On the final play of the game, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson unleashed a Hail Mary pass into the Packers end zone. Several Packers and Seahawks leaped to catch the ball. As the players jumped, Packers safety M. D. Jennings and Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate both jumped up for the ball, and both maintained some amount of contact with the ball in the air and upon landing on the ground.
The two officials near the play conferred and then simultaneously made separate signals; side judge Lance Easley raised his arms to signal touchdown, while back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn waved his arms to signal stoppage of the clock. Because Rhone-Dunn signaled timeout so as to stop the already expired game clock, Rhone-Dunn indicated that he desired further investigation of the play before rendering a verdict whereas Easley, from his angle, found sufficient evidence of a simultaneous catch with which to call a touchdown. The ruling on the field was officially a touchdown, with Tate and Jennings maintaining simultaneous possession.
Replay official Howard Slavin initiated a video review, as is required of all scoring plays. According to an NFL press release after the game, "The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable." Referee Wayne Elliott determined that there was not adequate evidence to overturn the call, so the ruling stood as a touchdown. As the teams and sports media swarmed the field, the Packers left the field and reported to their locker room, but were required by officials to return to the field for a mandatory point after attempt per the NFL rules.
The lack of a pass interference penalty and the ruling of a touchdown via simultaneous possession became the source of immediate controversy. During the broadcast, Monday Night Football announcer Jon Gruden expressed disbelief over the calls: "Golden Tate gets away with one of the most blatant offensive pass interference calls I've ever seen. M.D. Jennings intercepts the pass. And Tate's walking out of here as the player of the game. Unbelievable." ESPN's Kevin Seifert wrote, "In all, it was one of the most disorganized and embarrassing scenes you'll ever see on an NFL field. At least, so far." The winning catch was subsequently referred to in the media by the nicknames Fail Mary and Inaccurate Reception, (referencing the Hail Mary pass and Immaculate Reception, respectively) and Russell Wilson was referred to as having thrown a "game winning interception".
Following the game, the NFL released an official statement that acknowledged that the pass interference should have been called on Tate, but supported the decision to uphold the play as simultaneous possession:
When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball. Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.
Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.Referee Wayne Elliott and the officials (who were the original officials in control of the instant replay) determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.
In an interview with TMZ three days after the game, side judge Lance Easley defended his touchdown ruling, saying, "It was the correct call." When asked why it was not an interception, he said, "You have to not only have the ball but have either two feet or a body part on the ground, and that never happened." He later added, "Put any other official who knows the rules and they would make the same call." However, the day before Easley made that comment, locked out referee Walt Anderson, who has worked numerous NFL postseason games including two Super Bowls, said he would have ruled interception either on the field or under the hood. In addition, Bill Leavy, speaking on behalf of the locked out NFL officials including Ed Hochuli, said "they would have ruled Monday Night's would be an interception," and added "Like Ed, I've never seen one," referring to a simultaneous catch. Just a couple of weeks later on October 4, Wayne Elliott, who did not make the original call, stated on Showtime's Inside the NFL that he would "probably call interception."
Many NFL players commented on the ending, including several Packers players. Green Bay offensive lineman T. J. Lang tweeted after the game, "Got fucked by the refs.. Embarrassing. Thanks nfl." He later added, "Fuck it NFL.. Fine me and use the money to pay the regular refs," a message that was re-tweeted 92,314 times on September 26, breaking a Twitter record. Lang openly admitted that his team was considering going on strike if the lockout was not resolved. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers responded by saying, "First of all, I've got to do something that the NFL is not going to do: I have to apologize to the fans. Our sport is a multi-billion dollar machine, generated by people who pay good money to come watch us play. The product on the field is not being complemented by an appropriate set of officials. The games are getting out of control." Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy later stated he had been informed that Jennings had intercepted the pass.
The day after the game, New Jersey State Senator Stephen Sweeney, a Packers fan, announced plans to introduce legislation banning replacement officials from working professional sporting events in New Jersey. Green Bay's mayor Jim Schmitt sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, stating, "As an elected official and public steward, I'm concerned about the impact on the integrity of the game and the significant financial effect that it may have upon our community." US President Barack Obama weighed in on the ending, calling it "terrible" and adding, "I've been saying for months, we've gotta get our refs back."
Former quarterback Warren Moon speculated that the game—which had 24 called penalties for 245 yards (more than Seattle's 238 total yards)—could be an impetus to resolving the labor dispute, saying, "This could be the game that gets a deal done. Something like this, on the league's biggest stage, on Monday night, it's just not good for the game. You could argue the officials had a hand in the outcome, that they cost Green Bay the game or would have cost the Seahawks."
On September 26, 2012, two days after the game, an agreement was reached between the NFL and NFL Referees Association to end the 2012 NFL referee lockout that began in June 2012. The contentious nature of the replacement officials' decision at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game is widely considered to have been the tipping point that finally led to the agreement. Roger Goodell acknowledged that the game "may have pushed the parties further along" in negotiations.
One blog writer speculated on how this game would affect the standings for the rest of the regular season. Kevin Seifert, NFC North blogger of ESPN, frequently posted the playoff standings if the Packers had defeated the Seahawks instead. Ultimately, the Packers went on to win the NFC North division title with an 11–5 win–loss record, but finished with the third playoff seed behind the second-seeded 11–4–1 NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers, and thus Green Bay's record had them play in the Wild Card Round. The Seahawks ended up with an 11–5 record and the fifth seed, ahead of the sixth-seeded 10–6 Minnesota Vikings; even if Seattle had not beaten Green Bay, they would have still been the fifth seed at 10–6 because they held the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Vikings. Both Green Bay and Seattle eventually were eliminated in the Divisional Playoff Round.
Las Vegas oddsmakers estimated that over $300 million in bets changed hands due to the final play. Offshore betting website SportsBook.ag announced that it would be refunding wagers for customers outside of the United States who bet on the Packers. In the wake of the controversial ending, ESPN's sports news program SportsCenter achieved its highest ratings ever, receiving a 5.0 overnight Nielsen rating. Reportedly, 70,000 voicemail messages were left at NFL offices by disgruntled fans. In 2014, ESPN's listing of the 45 most memorable moments in the history of Monday Night Football, as voted on by ESPN.com contributors, ranked the controversy as #1.
The NFL rulebook states, "If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball."
Regarding the NFL's position of a simultaneous catch with both players on the ground, Mike Florio wrote for Pro Football Talk, "In reality, the outcome was determined before the players hit the ground. That’s when Jennings first gained 'control' of the ball, regardless of whether Tate eventually secured simultaneous 'possession' of it...The relevant portion of the official 2012 rules comes from Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5: 'It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.' (Emphasis added.) Thus, it doesn’t matter whether the officials determined that Tate and Jennings jointly had 'possession' when they landed; the question is whether Jennings 'gained control' first." The New York Times columnist Greg Bishop disputed the touchdown, writing, "Another defender, M. D. Jennings, leapt from behind Tate. The ball appeared to land in Jennings’s hands. Tate’s hands were there, too, as Jennings fell to the ground and pulled the ball to his chest. Tate eventually wrestled the ball away." Bishop further noted that, in waving his arms, back judge Rhone-Dunn appeared to be signaling a touchback for a change of possession via interception, which would have ended the game with a Packers victory.
Contrary to Florio's analysis of the rules, Cold Hard Football Facts writer Scott Kacsmar supported the touchdown ruling, stating "Golden Tate had the first control of the ball, catching it with his left hand, which never loses control of the ball throughout the entire process of the play. His two feet hit the ground to establish possession before M.D. Jennings establishes possession. Tate’s butt hits the ground, and at this point, he still has control, possession and is in the end zone for a good touchdown. Tate pushed off for an uncalled offensive pass interference that would have ended the game, but this is irrelevant when history shows no referee in football will make such a call on a Hail Mary. Seattle’s win is legit."
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