Commentary

'Immaculate' decisions are difficult

Despite 40 years of technological advances, doubt creeps in on controversial calls

Originally Published: September 25, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

A little less than 40 years ago, I was an 18-year-old high school student credentialed to cover the Pittsburgh Steelers for the St. Mary's Daily Press, a small paper in the middle of Pennsylvania.

The Pittsburgh Steelers made the playoffs, and I was witness to history. Franco Harris caught a deflected pass -- dubbed the "Immaculate Reception" by the late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope -- and ran directly toward the auxiliary press box at Three Rivers Stadium where I was seated. Several members of the media stood up and cheered the game-winning touchdown pass over the Oakland Raiders. I turned to an NFL official standing behind me and asked for replay because I thought it was an illegal catch.

As Myron would say, "It was deja vu all over again" on Monday night as Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate caught what I call "The Immaculate Deflection." Tate was awarded a controversial touchdown on a Hail Mary pass from quarterback Russell Wilson, in which it looked as though Green Bay Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings intercepted the ball.

What I can't believe is that 40 years of technological development left the Packers in the same situation as the Raiders: hopeless and angry. I'll never forget the scene in the Packers' lockerroom when the offensive players saw the replay of Tate's touchdown. They shouted their anger and threw towels at the television sets. They felt as though they were robbed.

Sensing this could be a crazy finish, I went down to the 15-yard line for the final two minutes to see if anything would happen. I purposely positioned myself in a spot to follow referee Wayne Elliott. I was no more than 10 feet away from him on the field when the play was ruled a touchdown.

Elliott immediately went over to the replay monitor.

One of the legends of the Immaculate Reception is that the referee actually went over to a television set that was on the field and watched the play. While probably not true, the legend has it that the ref turned to someone and said, "How many people are in the stands? … Touchdown, Pittsburgh."

Seeing Elliott come out of the hooded replay area, you almost felt as though he wasn't going to do anything to anger the 68,218 Seahawks fans. What concerned me was how lost he looked going back to the field. He didn't seem to know that both teams had to be on the field for the extra point.

There has been a debate as to whether replay can overturn Tate's touchdown. Long-time referee Jerry Austin, working as an analyst for ESPN during the broadcast, said this particular play wasn't reviewable for possession of the ball. The rule pertaining to simultaneous possession is that the offensive player wins all ties.

From my vantage point on the field -- and having watched the replays -- it should have been ruled an interception. Of course, I still believe the Raiders should have been given the Tom Brady fumble that was called an incompletion because of the Tuck Rule.

But going back to the Immaculate Reception, former Steeler Frenchy Fuqua, whom Harris' catch bounced off of, waited 10 years after his retirement to announce his opinion about whether or not it was a catch. He said it wasn't a catch because the ball bounced off him, and at the time NFL rules stated the ball couldn't touch two players from the same team.

As it turned out, Vic Ketchman, a longtime football writer, was at Monday's game covering for Packers.com. We both covered the Steelers during the 1970s and compared notes after Packers-Seahawks game. We agreed the ball should have been ruled an interception and the Packers should have won.

And still, with all the technology advancement of the past 40 years, we're at the same place we were in 1972. We all have doubt.

The only thing I'm certain of is this game should end the replacement officials experiment. The NFL shield has become cracked, tarnished and ruined during the start of this season.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer