Was it a touchdown or was it an interception? It was more like a catalyst or a last straw. The country saw its most popular sport upended, a competition erased by incompetency.
Seattle's game-winning touchdown -- or Green Bay's game-losing interception -- finally broke the NFL, sending them running back to the bargaining table amid a public outcry loud enough to drown out a Presidential election. The league and its referees had a deal in 48 hours, after months of intransigence toward locked out referees.
The striking NFLRA knew all along that it was just a matter of time before blown calls would force the NFL to act
The outpouring of vitriol following Monday's incident in Seattle was unlike anything the NFL has faced in recent history. It had been building since the preseason. Things worsened each week. A replacement ref would call a city by the wrong name. There would be a missed pass interference or a clock error here or there.
Physical football games started to feel like barroom brawls filled with cheap shots and illegal hits as replacement refs lost control of the players. Fans, players and coaches had weeks of pent-up resentment toward the whole thing.
I suspect there was a collective shudder inside the NFL's Park Avenue offices when Aaron Rodgers went on air to condemn the league for standing by the replacement officials. After all, Roger Goodell, the league's squared-jawed, blue-blooded commissioner staked his reputation on defending the integrity of the game. Imagine the reaction when one of the sport's most popular players went on the radio and said:
"First of all, I've got to do something that the NFL is not going to do, and I have to apologize to the fans. Our sport (has) generated a multi-billion dollar machine, by people who pay good money to come watch us play. And the product on the field is not being complemented by an appropriate set of officials. The games are getting out of control."
His remarks got even more scathing when he took the league to task for putting profits over play:
"I just feel bad for the fans. They pay good money and the game is being tarnished by an NFL who obviously cares more about saving a little money then having the integrity of the game diminish a little bit.''
That's not crazy Jim Harbaugh excoriating the NFL. That's the "discount double check" guy, the friendly face of professional football.
From the beginning, the NFLRA made it clear that the league's use of replacements would undermine the two things most pivotal to the league's success: player safety and parity.
The referee issue seeped into the news over the summer, just as thousands of former NFL players joined a class action lawsuit against the league over the long-term impact of head trauma. The Players Union voiced the same concern and solidarity with the retired players.
The NFL has been acting to improve player safety for some time now, implementing rule changes designed to minimize concussions and other serious injuries, rules that need the experienced eye of the games usual officials to enforce.
The integrity of the game has been the league's bread and butter. Its television rights are worth billions of dollars because tens of millions of fans watch each game every season knowing that their team has a chance to win.
Tasking replacement officials with patrolling those twin mandates at the highest level of competition was folly from the start. NFLRA president Scott Green warned the public in July:
"The NFL would never put more than one rookie official on a crew. [Using replacements] has got to be pretty unsettling to players and coaches, not to mention fans. The folks that are going to be on the field are not of NFL quality."
So did Ed Hochuli, the well-apportioned ref who has emerged from this whole thing with cult-like status, offered a more direct warning:
"There is a great deal of atmosphere control. Players know who we are. They're going to see how far they can push it, going to see how much they can get away with."
Nevertheless, the NFL stood by its replacement officials. From a statement released in response to the NFLRA in July:
"These high-quality officials will be prepared to work preseason games, beginning with the Pro Football Hall of Fame game on August 5. We have made substantial investments in training despite the efforts of the NFLRA to denigrate the replacements and disrupt the training process ... We are confident that these game officials will enforce rules relating to player safety."
NFL owners saw the referees as a fungible commodity, something they could easily replace with fill-ins from ranks of junior college and Arizona charter schools. They over estimated the league's ubiquity in an effort to put profits over parity, and they lost.
Colts owner Jim Irsay took to his strange Twitter feed with a feeble attempt at some rear guard public relations.
Your loud voices r heard about getting Refs back. We're desperately trying 2 get it done! We want a deal that improves officiating overall.— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) September 26, 2012
I'll pay $1,000,000,000.00 n Player costs in 7 years...it's not about greed or power mongering..new initiatives 2 improve officiating is key— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) September 26, 2012
Hmm, that's a curious claim in light of the fact that the league wanted to impose a major reduction to the referees' pension plan. I'm not sure how changes to the pension plan would have improved officiating. The refs made counter offers on the issue of pay and benefits in an attempt to negotiate. The NFL refused to compromise ... until Monday night's prime time debacle.
The final eight-year agreement includes changes to the pension plan that very closely resemble the refs' last offer, another sign of just how desperate the league was after last week's embarrassing finale. The deal also includes measures that will improve officiating, as Irsay suggested, including a pool of trained replacements. It was never clear just how much dispute there was over that issue, but by all accounts pay and benefits were the biggest sticking point.
Monday night's outcome will haunt the NFL all season, and it loom large again in January when fans get their first look at the playoff seeding. More importantly, the incident is burned into professional football's history as a reminder of just how important experienced, trained officials are to the success of professional football.
The referees -- the real ones -- knew it all along.