Commentary

Time for NFL owners to act

Originally Published: September 20, 2012
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Golden TateOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe messed-up ending of the Seattle-Green Bay game Monday night is the strongest reason so far for the NFL to get the real refs back on the field.
So what will it take now?

A head linesman biting a ref's nose? A back judge calling icing? An official in uniform cashing a winning ticket at the Mirage sports book?

If the Monday Night Mess in Seattle isn't the straw that breaks the Goodell's back, then what will? If embarrassment, humiliation and the winning team flying home as the loser doesn't get NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to settle this petty-cash squabble with his referees, then what will?

A: Owners.

If the NFL's owners don't step in right now and make Goodell get a deal done this week, then they deserve what they get: clown games with red noses that would be funny if people's careers weren't at stake.

We could see worse, I suppose. But I never thought I'd see what I saw Monday night.

I was interviewing M.D. Jennings, the Green Bay Packers defensive back, who was trying to explain how he caught a ball, landed on his back in the end zone, clutched the ball to his chest, only to look up and find out that somebody figured that was a touchdown. Then a giant roar of agony and disgust went up inside the Packers' locker room.

At first, we thought there was a fight. Instead, it was a large group of players and staff watching the replay on "SportsCenter." When they saw Jennings come down with the ball pinned to his chest, followed by Golden Tate pretending to have it by flopping one arm onto it, the way a husband flops an arm over his wife while sleeping, they cussed, spit and threw towels at the TV.

"What was that?" Jennings asked.

"They just saw the replay," somebody said.

"Oh," Jennings said. "Yeah, I know."

We all know. We're watching this joke of a season splatter right in front of our eyes.

There's a picture out there (above) from that moment, with one ref signalling "touchback" and the other signalling "touchdown." Send it to Canton. It's the symbol for this whole 2012 season so far.

The NFL so rarely makes a misstep. It's elegant, careful and smart. That's why it's such a shock to see it stepping its $750 Italian loafers in steaming piles of doo-doo weekly now.

We're talking about an amount of money the NFL has stuck between filing cabinets on Park Avenue. The main sticking point is more than $3 million the refs want in a pension. The league wants to give them only 401(k)s. And yet Goodell is risking the integrity of his $9 billion league on a loose thread like this. He's letting his house flood because he's mad at his plumber.

If you could've seen Aaron Rodgers' face after, you know he didn't think any of this was funny. I've never seen him look like that. He was white with anger. He was mad enough to rip the top off an Econoline van.

"Are you pissed?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said.

Then later …

"What did you think when you saw the replay?"

"Awful, just awful. And then, for them to review it? [Pause.] Just awful."

"Is this the most bitter loss you've ever suffered?"

Pause.

"Yes."

What will finally do it? If a game unfairly won and a game unfairly lost with about $150 million changing hands on the betting line doesn't force Goodell and the owners to get sensible, then what will? Bribes uncovered? Somebody's career ruined?

The NFL used to be the Mona Lisa. This thing is painting a mustache on it.

It's like we are all Bill Belichick, running wildly around the field, hair a mess, a lost look in our eyes, searching for somebody to explain. The owners need to grab Goodell hard by the arm, Belichick style, and say, "Make it stop!"

Said Packers star Charles Woodson, "If this game doesn't get [the two sides] closer together, then I don't know what will."

Yeah, that's what we're all afraid of.

"This game gets an asterisk," grumbled Packers nose guard B.J. Raji.

If Goodell isn't careful, this season is going to get one, too.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com