Sometime Tuesday afternoon, after an emergency session of some NFL owners subcommittee and a quick folding in front of a federal labor mediator, commissioner Roger Goodell should step in front of a podium, declare the lockout of the league's referees over and apologize to the coaches, players, fans and replacement officials for the last three weeks of football.
It's the owners who are locking out the refs and must sign off on a contract. And it is the owners who employ Goodell. But at some point, Goodell has to lead his bosses. That's the mark of a great commissioner, and make no mistake, Roger Goodell believes he is a great commissioner.
A great commissioner doesn't stand around and let his league continue on as a laughingstock.
Monday in Seattle, the Seahawks managed to beat Green Bay 14-12 on a Hail Mary pass that the Packers intercepted, but two replacement refs – each appearing terrified at making the call – did nothing. They then made opposite decisions – one signaled what could be an interception, one a definitive TD – but, only, well, there's no good way to explain this.
"I've never seen anything like that in all my years of football," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Very unusual. Most unusual game I've been a part of."
You've seen the replay. If not, turn on a TV and wait 15 seconds. Expect President Obama and Mitt Romney to weigh in by noon.
This is Goodell's Heidi game, a forever blemish he'll never live down. The lockout may not have been his idea but it's on his watch. Someone might as well start pre-production on a documentary now, the image of those two confused refs in the corner of the Seattle end zone is sure to go down in history.
In financial terms, the NFL and the officials union are reportedly battling over about $3 million annually in pension commitments, a drop in the bucket for a $9 billion organization. Like most employers, the NFL doesn't want to deal with pensions anymore, the chief reason this has dragged out. There are also plenty of issues that the union is holding too hard a line also. It's a labor dispute; no one is completely innocent.
But it's the NFL dealing with the fallout. Does it really want another week of being a bad version of pro wrestling?
At least in the WWE, there is a satisfying ending to the script.
The replacement ref experiment is a disaster. It has overwhelmed the league. It's overshadowed strong play. It's turned Goodell's vaunted shield into a joke.
The league didn't find properly trained referees capable of handling the task. It didn't spend enough time training them during the offseason. It didn't back them up immediately when the season began to the constant complaints, criticism and in-game histrionics from players and coaches. That allowed the after-play protests to become constant distractions. That has brought out the worst of their personalities and put it on display.
On back-to-back nights, during its prime-time games, the NFL experienced chaos. In the first, two head coaches [Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh] made physical contact with referees, sandwiching a finish that defied all explanation. Then Green Bay lost a game it won. Seattle won a game it lost. And in Las Vegas, not to mention in books across America, who knows who won or lost what.
"It was awful," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "Just look at the replay. And then the fact that it was reviewed?"
It's uncertain even why it was reviewed, which merely led to more chaos.
This was just the highest-profile disaster of three weeks building toward it. Too often the games have no flow, no credibility. It's a parade of flags, confused calls and replay-booth bailouts. It doesn't feel like football. The announcers are so enraged they lose focus.
The replacement refs are trying but they aren't remotely prepared. The NFL should've seen this coming and done better. Then again, you can't shine a sneaker: The speed of the game is just overwhelming for Division III and high school officials. The replacement refs aren't trying to screw things up; in fact, they appear so petrified at screwing things up that they overcompensate and screw it up even more.
And just wait until Week 4, after days and days of the fallout from this game.
Goodell has preached and punished with a single focus on "protecting the shield" against any and all tarnish. He's bullied players and batted around coaches.
Now here's his biggest challenge: to stand up to the billionaires that sign his check, end the labor dispute and get on with this. Right now is Goodell's moment to prove he's as tough and as smart and as savvy as he likes to act when he's sitting down an individual behavior for some transgression.
Goodell's NFL is a mess right now. A joke. A punch line. That's what it will continue to be until this gets solved. The regular refs will continue to make mistakes, calls will be blown, controversies will continue. But it won't be this, because it's never been this.
The game is a sideshow. The brilliant performances are an afterthought. The credibility is in question.
To that Goodell needs to end it now before it churns on and on.
And then he needs to apologize to everyone for what's already occurred.
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