Roger Goodell stood inside an opening-night dressing room and welcomed home his stars of the game, his personal MVPs of the Dallas Cowboys' victory over the New York Giants, the men dressed up as NFL officials as if they were ready to go door to door on Halloween.
The commissioner wore the look of a guy who had just escaped a head-to-toe IRS audit without a scratch. Goodell shook hands with the replacement refs, patted them hard on their backs in an atta-boy way, did everything but douse them with chilled bottles of champagne.
He had to have been afraid he would be humiliated on national TV, afraid the amateurs he hired in place of the locked-out officials would blow an endgame whistle that shouldn't have been blown or throw an endgame flag that shouldn't have been thrown, leaving the walls of America's new sporting pastime to come crashing down around him.
Goodell survived that opening night, one marred more by the defending champs than the refs, and so he stood in the bowels of MetLife Stadium and acted like that trainer or ball boy you always see standing at the locker room door greeting the winning players with a series of high-fives.
But the bill finally came due Monday night, when Goodell and the owners were embarrassed and exposed in a staggering way. An overmatched circle of fools awarded the Seattle Seahawks a victory over the Green Bay Packers on a call no more legitimate than those that settled the USA-USSR gold-medal basketball game in 1972.
That same year, Franco Harris made one of the most famous plays in league history, a catch forever remembered as the Immaculate Reception. Forty years later, Russell Wilson's winning heave to Golden Tate in Seattle qualifies as the Immaculate Deception.
Tate's touchdown was actually M.D. Jennings' pick in the end zone, and the whole world knows it. Tate set up his non-catch by pushing Green Bay's Sam Shields in the back with both hands -- blasting him to the ground -- and the replays would let the whole world in on that, too.
But the official signaling for a touchdown would win out over the official signaling for a touchback, win out on an absurd interpretation of the simultaneous possession rule, and even amid the chaotic aftermath, this much was clear:
Goodell has been perpetrating a fraud on his customers. The commissioner had been advertising one product and selling another, promising something real and delivering something fake. Goodell set fire to his own brand by allowing games played and coached by the best of the best to be officiated by a propped-up group that included tailgating fans, fantasy league contestants and, of course, Lingerie League leftovers.
Bill Belichick suddenly became the ugly face of the farce by chasing one of these guys off the field Sunday night, but this has been Goodell's game from start to finish. If he did his legacy a ton of favors by attacking the issues of player safety and concussions, he's busy right now spraying graffiti all over that legacy.
"Awful," Aaron Rodgers called the officiating that stole the Packers' rightful victory.
"I've never seen anything like it in all my years of football," said his coach, Mike McCarthy.
Packers and celebrities and fans everywhere took to Twitter to vent about Tate's not-so-Golden score, and about the brutal calls that preceded it. In the wake of the lockout, NFL games had already devolved into endless and unruly events, with the officiating about as ugly as Matt Schaub's ear.
But Monday night was what everyone was calling the game-changer, complete with a finish that made the Patriots-Ravens field goal follies look orderly in comparison. Goodell has no choice now but to line up in defeat formation, for even Greg Schiano would advise him it's time to take a knee.
Lord knows the league and the owners have money to burn, money to satisfy the wage and pension demands of officials who proved to be far less expendable than anyone might've guessed.
If Goodell puts one more NFL game in the hands of the unqualified and the incompetent, he will be assuring his players, his coaches and his customers that he doesn't give a damn about them.
That would be a hell of a legacy for Roger the unartful dodger, so he needs to do the right thing, the only thing, and he needs to do it today.
Bring back the zebras and send out the clowns.