NFL damage may not heal 

End Zone

On the surface at least, the National Football League returned to sanity last weekend. The replacement officials were gone, sent back to their small-college and high school levels. The regular zebras returned, looking more competent than ever (probably because of the chaos during their absence).

Suddenly, there were no glaring controversies. No blown calls that changed outcomes. No teams literally robbed of victories by referees' bumbling ineptitude.

The new eight-year contract between the NFL and the officials union could have been done a month earlier, but the league had to show its greedy, stubborn, irrational side for three weeks of regular-season games. NFL executives depended on the replacements, insisting the pro game's integrity was not affected — though it was. Even after the league's most embarrassing moment in memory, nobody had the nerve to admit the officials made an error, or the guts to correct it.

And that's why, despite all the obvious relief at having the "real" officials back on the job, the wounds might not heal soon. In fact, they still could impact this NFL season when playoff berths are decided.

Everybody knows about the Monday Night Debacle on Sept. 24 in Seattle, when the Seahawks' final play was ruled a touchdown to give them a 14-12 victory against Green Bay. That was the final straw, leading to the settlement. They blew it, ignoring an offensive pass interference penalty and then wrongly interpreting what took place afterward. It wasn't a simultaneous catch in the air, as was ruled, and Green Bay defender M.D. Jennings never lost primary possession of the ball. Seattle receiver Golden Tate didn't have both hands on the ball until after landing on the ground, when Jennings still had the ball against his chest.

By all rights, Green Bay earned, and should've been awarded, a 12-7 victory, since time ran out on that last play. In fact, the NFL could have salvaged some credibility by coming back the next day and reversing the outcome. If nothing else, the league could have considered a compromise, such as not taking away Seattle's victory, but giving Green Bay a win as well. That would've been better than cementing the horrific mistake in history.

Don't tell me it's a 16-game season and the Packers have time to overcome it. They shouldn't have to overcome it. This will come up again in December, especially if Seattle is in a tight NFC West race helped by that victory. And it'll be rehashed if the Packers are battling for their division title or postseason seeding, but affected to the end by a loss that shouldn't have been.

It could happen, and that may not be the only case.

Also on the replacements' final weekend, Tennessee and Detroit went to overtime. During what became the final series, Detroit was called for a personal foul, a 15-yard penalty. But the officials somehow lost track. They should have marked off 15 yards from Tennessee's 44-yard line to the Lions' 41. Instead they assessed it from Detroit's 44 to the 29, putting the Titans in range for the winning field goal.

That one was lost in the Seattle-Green Bay hysteria a day later. We'll hear a lot more about it if the Lions are in the playoff hunt.

Also, the Denver-Atlanta game on Monday, Sept. 17. Down 10-0, the Broncos were driving late in the first quarter. Knowshon Moreno fumbled and a scrum ensued, lasting six minutes of actual time. Denver offensive lineman Orlando Franklin, an eloquent, high-character guy, came out with the ball and has said repeatedly that he had possession the entire time. But an official ruled Atlanta recovered at its 32, and the Falcons padded their lead to 20-0. Denver came back, but lost 27-21. If the Broncos had scored then, the game might have been totally different.

So that's three games, all involving teams with a shot at the postseason.

We'll see if those games matter come late December.



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