So who made this horrible call anyway?
These days, it is the burning question in a league on fire. After a game-altering decision, who is to blame? After a heartbreaking mistake, who could come up with such an egregious conclusion? At the most important moment, with so much on the line, who could have turned up the outrage?
Why, hello, Roger Goodell.
Go on. Blame the lost officials in the back of the end zone of Monday night's Green Bay-Seattle game, won by the Seahawks on a final-play touchdown pass when a Seattle penalty should have been called and a Packer appeared to have secured an interception. Curse the clueless bunch that walked off a 15-yard penalty from the wrong 44-yard line in the Detroit-Tennessee game. Yell at the referees who gave San Francisco an extra timeout in the 49ers' loss to the Vikings.
The real villain here, however, is Goodell, the man who made the call to lock the NFL's regular referees out of the stadium. It was Goodell and, of course, the 32 owners he salutes each day, who decided to turn the integrity of his league over to a collection of substandard officials in the first place.
No matter how many bad calls have come since, that's the one fans should be screaming about today.
And, upon further review, tomorrow.
In every game, and on every series, the officiating seems to get worse. The league has placed its image in the hands of whatever striped shirt it can find, including a couple of guys who must have worked at Foot Locker. It is like turning an airplane fleet over to cab drivers and asking the customers not to notice the turbulence.
Coaches are angry. Players are angry. Analysts are angry. Fans are angry. Evidently, Goodell cannot hear any of them.
As far as the frauds in stripes? Evidently, Goodell cannot hear the laughter.
At any point, did anyone ask the Pac-12 about their old zebras? Evidently, some of the replacement refs were fired from the conference. Think about that. They weren't good enough to work Cal-Colorado, but they were good enough for the NFL.
If that weren't bad enough, evidently a couple of the refs were fired from the Lingerie Football League for being "incompetent.'' From the way the NFL studies game tapes, you might have thought it would have noticed in that big game between, say, the Los Angeles Temptation and the Tampa Breeze.
Every time you learn something about one of the replacement refs, it gets sillier. One replacement ref was outed as a big Saints fans just before he was scheduled to call a Saints game. Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said another suggested he needed McCoy to have a big game for his fantasy team. Then there is this: Shannon Eastin, a replacement who is the first female ref, competed in the World Series of Poker in 2007. Given the NFL's attempts to distance itself from gamblers, shouldn't this concern someone? Everyone?
Is this going to be Goodell's legacy? That, with the intent of placing more nickels into the pockets of more owners, he was willing to shut down the fun? Last year, remember, it was the players he locked out. This year, the referees. Next year? Maybe the cheerleaders should watch themselves.
This has become irritating, and when the league comes out with a straight face to defend the horrible call that gave the Seahawks a victory over the Packers, it becomes insulting.
"Don't trust what you are seeing,'' the league seems to be saying. "Trust what we are saying.''
Honestly, what did the owners think was going to happen here? Sure, the regular refs blew a lot of calls over the years, too. Did the NFL front office convince itself that no one would notice the difference between a bad call and a bad ref?
Here's the difference: In the end, you still expected the real refs to make the correct call. You expected them to be the neighborhood police officer, tough and fair and honest. You expected the players to decide who won and who lost.
These days? You are not quite certain if the referee knows which team is wearing blue and which team is wearing white. Any day now, I expect the Bears to win a game after the ref calls a balk on Detroit.
How bad are these guys? Consider: In Week 3, there were 20 challenges by coaches. After review, 16 were overturned. Think about that. In the flag-throwing, review-it-further plays, the replacements were right only 20 percent of the time. It makes you wonder how wrong they were the rest of the time.
Remember the sack/fumble by Dallas quarterback Tony Romo on Sunday when the Bucs' Eric Wright picked up the ball and was headed to the end zone? Blown. Remember the helmet-to-helmet hit by Pittsburgh's Ryan Mundy on Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey? Blown. Remember Baltimore coach John Harbaugh getting called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he was trying to call a timeout? Blown.
The entire debacle started by Goodell? Blown.
Little by little, there are stains on The Shield. Little by little, integrity is lessening. The officials are in over their heads. They cannot control the players or the pace or the protests.
By now, even Goodell must know he made a mistake. His players are in near revolt. His coaches are fed up. And yet, the lockout continues. Yeah, the NFL has made worse decisions: the 1987 replacement players come to mind. But they only stayed for three weeks before the league came to its senses.
Here's a question: At what point did this sound like a good idea to Goodell? At what point did Dallas' Jerry Jones and Washington's Dan Snyder and Atlanta's Arthur Blank and Tampa Bay's Joel and Bryan Glazer nod along?
It is time for the embarrassment to end. Sometime this morning, Goodell should call his key owners together and suggest surrender. "Look, guys, this isn't worth the beating we're taking,'' he should say. "Not for punter money. Let's just pay before these clowns botch something else.''
Three weeks of this, and by now, there are two ways out:
First, you pay for the real referees with your money.
Either that, or you pay for the fakes with your image.
Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM The Fan.