Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson compares the NFL replacement referees controversy to the way traffic officials determine whether to put in a stoplight at an intersection.
"You have to have so many car wrecks," Dawson said, "before they deem that intersection to be dangerous enough."
Think of the player scrum in the end zone at Seattle's CenturyLink Field late Monday as a multi-car pileup.
The accident scene at the intersection of Replacement and Chaos was so bad for the NFL that even President Obama thinks the fill-in refs blew the call that ended Monday night's Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers game. He and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (a Packers fan from Wisconsin) shared rare common cause as each said it's time to bring back real refs.
All this came after replacement officials awarded the Seahawks a touchdown on a Hail Mary pass that looked like a Packers interception to many observers, and even to one official â?? but not to referee Wayne Elliott, who decided there was no indisputable visual evidence to overturn the call on replay, or to the NFL Officiating Department, which reviewed the call Tuesday and endorsed Elliott's decision not to overturn.
Tellingly, the NFL statement was agnostic on the call itself, supporting only the decision not to reverse it â?? and once more replacement refs emerged as the talk of the nation, bringing to a boiling point three weeks of fan frustration over bad calls, no calls and a growing sense that rent-a-refs have lost control of the nation's most popular sport.
The NFL locked out its regular refs in June in a collective bargaining dispute over pay and pensions, gambling that replacement refs drawn from lower-level college leagues would not to bumble their way to become the overarching storyline of the season.
Monday night's controversy-igniting final play was replayed Tuesday on what seemed an endless TV loop: Seahawks receiver Golden Tate pushes Packers defensive back Sam Shields out of the way. Safety M.D. Jennings catches the pass with both hands against his chest as Tate reaches in with his. One official signals touchdown, another interception. But ultimately refs rule they both caught it. Simultaneous possession goes to the offense. Game over, Seattle wins.
The NFL's statement said Tate should have been called for offensive pass interference for that two-handed shove, which would have ended the game, but otherwise seemed to back the both-caught-it call, even as players and fans and broadcasters castigated it.
"If it was just that call, it would be a blip on the screen, but as this has picked up steam in the last three weeks, it is now a sequence of events that is leading to a crisis for the NFL," said Ramsey Poston, an expert in crisis communications who was NASCAR's media guru in the years after Dale Earnhardt died on the track in 2001.
"The NFL appears to be on a shrinking island by itself," Poston said. "Now you have almost all of their major stakeholders publicly crying out for immediate change, and that includes players, coaches, fans and broadcast partners.And I suspect the official partners, who pay a lot of money to be associated with the NFL, are starting to make calls as well."
Here are 10 questions on the curious case of the replacement refs:
What does the league say about Monday night's call?
A lawyerly official statement cited, among other things, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5 of the NFL rule book defining simultaneous catch. It says in part: "It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control," although that is what appears to be what happened here.
What are the players saying?
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers: said: "My thing is I just feel bad for the fans. They pay good money to watch this. The game is being tarnished by an NFL that obviously cares more about saving some money than having the integrity of the game diminished."
Quarterback Drew Brees, whose New Orleans Saints were dealt severe penalties by commissioner Roger Goodell in the Bountygate scandal, tweeted: "Ironic that our league punishes those based on conduct detrimental. Whose CONDUCT is DETRIMENTAL now?"
What are the lockout issues?
Issues include annual salaries and added officiating crews, but a major sticking point is pensions. The referees want to continue their traditional pension plan and the league wants to replace it with a 401(k) plan.
"We are prepared to make reasonable compromises on economic issues, including an average annual salary that will rise close to $200,000 and a generous retirement plan," wrote Ray Anderson, NFL vice president for football operations, on USA TODAY's editorial page today.
NFL Referees Association executive director Tim Millis said in a letter to USA TODAY Sports that the league wants to reduce a defined-benefit pension package for veteran officials "by some 60%." If the NFL would grandfather-in veteran officials, Millis said the NFLRA would reduce its overall compensation by $1 million over five years.
Who are these guys?
The replacements come from lower-division college leagues such as NCAA Division II and III and the NAIA, and one even has Lingerie Football League experience.
Lance Easley, the side judge who made the initial touchdown call in Seattle, is a Southern California high school and junior college official. Karl Richins, a retired Division I official who trained and evaluated Easley at a training academy in July says Easley wasn't ready to work major college games, let alone the NFL.
Before the season, The Onion listed as among replacement ref gaffes: "Showed up on the field wearing Eli Manning replica jerseys." Real life trumped satire when side judge Brian Stropolo was kicked off a replacement crew that was set to work a Saints game when his Facebook page revealed him as a Saints fan.
Where do the talks stand?
The NFL and its referees association negotiated face-to-face Tuesday, a source familiar with the talks told USA TODAY Sports. Goodell and NFL counsel Jeff Pash participated in the talks, according to the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because neither side has spoken publicly. The sides also spoke by phone Monday, the person said.
What are the gaffes?
In fairness, regular refs regularly make disputed calls. But the succession of mistakes in the season's opening weeks included gaffes not normally seen: marking off the wrong distance on penalties, spotting the ball in the wrong place, allowing video challenges when they should not.
Where do players stand?
The NFL Players Association supports the regular referees, posting an open letter to the NFL on Sunday that said in part: "Your decision to lock out officials with more than 1,500 years of collective NFL experience has led to a deterioration of order, safety and integrity. This decision has not only resulted in poor calls, missed calls and bad game management, but the combination of those deficiencies will only continue to jeopardize player health and safety and the integrity of the game."
Where do coaches stand?
Denver Broncos coach John Fox was fined $30,000 and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio $25,000 for their treatment of officials Sept. 17. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan of the Washington Redskins was fined $25,000 for berating an official Sunday, according to a person with knowledge of the fine who requested anonymity because the fine had not been officially announced. More fines are expected for New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh for their behavior Sunday.
Are TV ratings slipping?
Hard to say. Overall national ratings are down 4% through two weeks but are on track to be one of the three highest-rated seasons since 1989. And interest in the ending in Seattle was so high that the SportsCenter following it drew 4.5% of U.S. households, making it the most-watched full-length Sportscenter ever, despite its late start.
How long will this last?
Even if the league and referees union come to agreement, this week's slate of games begins Thursday and it will take time to get the regular refs back to work.
Sidelined NFL ref Scott Helverson told the Des Moines Register Tuesday that union and league requirements would take days to sort through, including an in-person vote by all 121 members of the association and a clinic to go over new rules.