Fail Mary Was Called Correctly

Almost two years ago one of the most bizarre and controversial endings to a NFL game took place at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Washington. The last game of Week 3 of the 2012 season featured a Monday Night Football showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. The Packers came back in the second half of the game to lead 12-7 with :08 left on the clock in the 4th quarter. Seattle had the ball, 4th & 10 from the Green Bay 24-yard line, needing a touchdown on the game’s final play to win. I was at the game with my daughter and we were among the thousands of Packers fans in attendance that evening who were loudly cheering and chanting “Go Pack, Go!” as the ball was snapped on that fateful play. Everyone in the building, player and fans alike, knew what play was going to be called and that the odds of Seattle completing a “Hail Mary” pass in that situation were very low but still, the play must be run. The day before a game had ended with a Hail Mary TD completion, so it could happen. The ball was snapped, Russell Wilson, the Seahawks QB ran away from some pressure while his receivers ran toward the end zone. From about 40 yards out Wilson tossed a beautiful spiral to the left corner of the end zone where two of his receivers and five Packers defenders were gathered. What happened next was crazy and seemed to defy logic.

My daughter and I at the Fail Mary game

My daughter and I at the Fail Mary game

Before I get too far into this post, I should disclose that I grew up in Neenah, Wisconsin, about 40 miles south of Green Bay. My parents were both Packers fans and I have been a cheesehead my whole life. Since I grew up in the 1970s and 80s I missed the glory days of the Lombardi championships that my dad told me about over and over. Nope. I got to watch Lynn Dickey get clobbered because he only ran fast when it was back to the sidelines after failing on 3rd down. For several years in the mid-80s the preseason papers declared “The Pack is Back” in vain. I had to endure 8-8 seasons and the hated Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle and the Fridge on their way to the 1985 title. I was happy when Don “Majik Man” Majkowski became the QB, thrilled when Brett Favre led the Packers to sustained success (4th and 26 notwithstanding) and the 1996 Super Bowl title, and ecstatic when Aaron Rodgers took over and they won it all in 2010. I’m a die-hard Packers fan even though I now live deep in Seahawks country, about 40 miles south of Seattle near Tacoma, Washington. I was fortunate enough to be at that game nearly two years ago. If anything, the admission that I’m about to write should be more surprising since, as a Packers fan, I should feel like the replacement refs screwed the Packers on the last call of the game. But, I just can’t do it.

Pre-snap view of last play from my seat.

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Back to the game. The ball’s trajectory was perfect, heading toward Seattle’s WR, #81, Golden Tate, yet the Packers were in place to defend it. As the ball was nearing, Tate shoved the back of Packers CB, #37, Sam Shields, with two hands, forcing him to the ground. Shields would’ve been in perfect position to bat the ball down. Despite that obvious offensive pass interference (which wasn’t called; almost never would be called in a similar situation) another Packers defender, #43, M.D. Jennings, timed his leap perfectly and cradled the ball to his chest in mid-air among the other hands reaching for the ball. As Jennings fell through the air Tate reached around Jennings’s body and put his hands on the ball. Since Jennings had jumped the highest, he was also the last to come back down to the pile of players on the turf, both of his arms still cradling the ball. As the players reached the turf they continued their struggle for possession of the ball. The outcome of the game was hanging in the balance of this one decision by the referees. In case you had forgotten, the regular NFL referees had been locked out by the owners and commissioner so this was the third week of the season in which replacement refs were used. The players, coaches and fans were all upset by the poor quality of officiating since it wasn’t nearly the same quality or consistency as with the regular refs.

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With that as context, it wasn’t shocking to see the two refs in the area give conflicting arm signals. One indicated time-out (for an interception) and the other a touchdown (for a reception). Pandemonium ensued at the game, both on the field and in the stands. The Packers players argued with the ref that it was a pick. The Seahawks players jumped around joyously at their fantastic finish. Those of us in the stands stood bewildered, not knowing what we had just seen. The head referee announced that the play would be reviewed but had been ruled a TD on the field. There was no replay shown on the JumboTrons at the game. Just an uneasy feeling among the Packers fans that they had just been robbed of a hard-earned win. The MNF telecast on ESPN showed the replay several times, with commentators Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden sharing their feelings that it was an interception. They even consulted a retired ref, Jerry Austin, who confirmed that he felt it was an interception. “This is the most bizarre sequence you’ll ever see at the end of the game” said Tirico. Added Gruden, “For the life of me I don’t know how M.D. Jennings doesn’t have credit for the interception”.

After further review the call stood and Seattle won the game. After a brief delay the meaningless extra point was kicked and the fans left the stadium in shock. We still had not seen a replay like the TV audience had. I used the bathroom on the way out and a Seahawks fan told me that he was sorry. His friend had called him to tell him what he had seen on TV. A few of my friends texted me or posted on Facebook that they thought the refs had screwed up that last call. I listened to post-game talk-radio and heard dozens of people rail on the refs for that terrible call. It was all over the internet that night and in the weeks to follow. Some people even called for the NFL commissioner to reverse the call and give the win to Green Bay. Since I live in Washington state not too far from Seattle I was able to listen to the Seattle-based sports talk radio guys the next day. Every single one of them agreed that it was an interception and that Green Bay should have won the game. One of them went so far as to say that any Seahawks fans who seriously thought it was the right call should have their heads examined. They even laughed about it on air. I guess I was sold that this was a bad call. Packers should have won the game. Case closed. Move on.

Not so fast, though. A few days later I happened to see this picture from a different angle that made me reconsider.

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What I saw was two players who were both fighting for the ball. Tate’s arms were not wrapped around Jennings. And guess what else? Tate has two feet on the ground with two hands on the ball. Jennings has no feet on the ground yet. And then my mind began to question what my eyes and ears had been telling me. Q: When is a player given credit for a reception? A: When he has control of the ball and two feet in bounds. Q: Who has possession of the ball first in this photo? A: Tate! I was mortified. No way. No how. I’m a Packers fan. This cannot be. While my eyes were done my brain wasn’t. Q: What is simultaneous possession? A: When two players gain control of the ball at the same time. Q: If Tate had possession of the ball first, even if partial, does that make it simultaneous? A: Yes. UGH! In the NFL, a simultaneous catch goes to the offensive player. So, in my mind, I believe that the decision to call the Fail Mary pass a touchdown was the correct call. I have shocked many Seahawks and Packers fans over the last two years with this explanation. I have yet to hear a rebuttal that isn’t based on emotions or what the guys on ESPN said during the game. If you have one, I’d love to hear it.

Before you tell me I’m an idiot (and maybe I am, but that’s not for this discussion, please) and don’t know anything about football let me share some more observations about this game with you. Since I’m a Stay At Home Dad I have the “luxury” of spending a lot of quality time cleaning the kitchen and folding the laundry, usually at night when everyone else in my family is asleep. This has afforded me the opportunity to not only obsess over think about this game too much but to also watch the game replay on www.nfl.com multiple times. I’ve come to the conclusion that the refs were horrible the entire game and made a couple of significantly awful calls that cost the Packers the victory prior to the Fail Mary play. In fact, had the calls been made properly earlier in the game, the Fail Mary play probably wouldn’t have happened. The first such play happened on Seattle’s first play right after the Packers had scored their only TD to take their first lead of the game. With 8:44 left in the 4th quarter, on 1st & 10 from their own 20, Wilson took a play-action fake and was flushed back and to his right by #93, Erich Walden. As Walden dove at him, Wilson threw the ball slightly behind his receiver, who tipped the pass up into the air, where it was snatched by as Packers player. Interception. Packers take over just outside of the red zone with a chance to put the game away. Nope. The referee decided that it was a penalty on Walden. Roughing the passer. 15 yard penalty against Green Bay. It was Seattle’s first first-down of the second half. Both Gruden and Tirico question the call, particularly because Wilson was out of the pocket and had already shown his ability to extend and create plays with his running ability.

The second play happened just two and a half minutes later, with 6:10 left in the game. After consecutive offensive holding penalties Seattle faced a seemingly insurmountable 1st & 30. Wilson tossed a pass toward his tall WR, #18, Sidney Rice, who is running a go-route down the left sideline. Only he is matched step for step by Sam Shields, Green Bay’s CB. The two of them made some contact as they ran, with Rice clearly grabbing and pushing Shields in his back while they run and then going over and through his back as the ball dropped from the sky to them. As the pass fell incomplete to the ground the referee tossed his flag at their feet. Before the call is announced, Gruden stated, “It’s on Rice. I don’t even believe they’re going to call this on Sam Shields.” So, of course, it’s on Sam Shields, defensive pass interference. A 32-yard penalty that gives Seattle the ball at the Green Bay 35. Referring to the botched calls, Tirico added, “It’s making it hard to watch every game.”

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Gruden concurred, “I’m about to jump out of the press box here.” While it’s possible that Seattle could have still gotten a first down on that drive, it probably wouldn’t have happened if there had been no penalty or if it had been ruled offensive pass interference. And I won’t even go into any debate about the blatant offensive pass interference on Tate on the Fail Mary play. Both Gruden and Tirico referenced it during the final minutes of the ESPN telecast.

All in all, the game was a microcosm of what the league was experiencing with the replacement refs. Complete frustration with the poor quality and terribly inconsistent (and sometimes incorrect) enforcement of the rules. Because of the bizarre finish to the MNF game and comments made by many players, specifically those by Packers MVP QB Aaron Rodgers the day after the game, the regular refs were reinstated for the games in Week 4. Despite the poor officiating and the questionable outcome of the game, both the Packers and Seahawks made the playoffs that season. If the outcome had been reversed, the Seahawks would still have been the #6 seed in the NFC, but the Packers would have been the #2 seed and had a bye week instead of being the #3 seed. While it would be easy to blame that on the Fail Mary game, the reality is that the Packers lost several close games that season (at Indianapolis two weeks later and at Minnesota in Week 17) that would have also secured the #2 seed. The improbable come-from-behind win for the Seahawks was the first 4th quarter comeback for their rookie QB Russell Wilson and helped to boost his popularity among fans as some of them had been grumbling about the offense’s lackluster play over the first few weeks of the season. Obviously, things worked out pretty well for Seattle with Wilson as quarterback over the following 16 months. Just ask the fans of the San Francisco 49ers or Denver Broncos.

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7 thoughts on “Fail Mary Was Called Correctly

  1. Carl, I had the same impression of that play when I saw it. I have a lot of officiating experience, but all of it is flag football. Still, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of this play. I wrote in my column about how I also thought the call was correct (http://somuchsports.com/site/2012/09/quick-inside-slants-week-3-2/) at the time. HOWEVER, it was pointed out to me afterwards by someone that the NFL rulebook makes a distinction between POSSESSION and CONTROL. CONTROL is not dependent on possession of the ball, aka having both feet on the ground. Here’s the rule on simultaneous possession from the NFL rulebook: “Item 5: Simultaneous Catch. 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.” The word CONTROL is of utmost importance. Jennings had CONTROL of the ball before Tate, though not POSSESSION of it. Therefore, according to Rule 8, Article 3, Item 5, the play should have been called an interception.

    There you have it, explained to you as it was explained to me a couple years ago. Now maybe you obsess over other things while folding laundry. Also of note is that the biggest failure of the replacement officials – and I was on their side for the most part, but couldn’t defend this – is that there was no call on the field. Watch it again. The ref just says “the play is under review.” Never called it a touchdown on the field. Or an interception. Or anything. As a ref, even of just flag football, that was inexcusable.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this. Good luck this season. And as a Philly fan, I’ll think of you when wearing my 4th and 26 shirt on Week 11. 🙂

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  2. Thanks to my father who informed me on the topic of this blog, this blog is genuinely remarkable.

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  3. There is no way to possibly determine full control. There are pictures, slow video, and nothing is consistent with proving the Jennings had ABSOLUTE CONTROL of the ball before Tate. Tate had one hand on the ball. There are one handed catches in the NFL. You can not determine that Jennings had more control of the ball than Tate simply because he had two hands on the ball. That is why it goes to simultaneous possession.

    With all of this being said, for anyone, whatsoever, to say that “this call was a joke” or “you’re a joke if you think the call was wrong” is a joke in itself. This is one of the most scrutinized calls of all time, and what the call is, whether right or wrong, is the call after it is reviewed in the couple of minutes that they have. That is THE call, there is no right or wrong, because you could argue it both ways.

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  4. 2 feet on ball + 2 feet on ground is pocession. Jennings had 2 hands on ball while in the air but Tate had his hands on ball and feet on the ground. That’s a pocession. And the “no-flags, or flags” the Packers got against them in other plays, what about some seriously awful calls against the Seahawks?!? Like the phantom PI on Kam Chancellor on 3rd down, late in game. GB would have punted the ball. Instead they get a 1st down on a TERRIBLE PI call and scored a TD on that drive. It would have never come down to last play if the phantom PI call on Kam was called correctly. Glass house…

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