Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Everything Is Wild: On the Packers-Seahawks Game; or, Simultaneous Botch

With about eight-and-a-half minutes left to go in the fourth quarter of the NFL game between the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks last night, Seattle got the ball on their own 20 down 12-7, hoping to begin a long late-game drive to victory.

On the first play of that drive, quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass down the right sideline that was intercepted by Packers cornerback Jerron Williams, a play which appeared as though it might help lock up a win for Green Bay. But a penalty against the Packers’ Eric Walden for roughing the passer nullified the interception, and Seattle retained possession.

The call had been highly sketchy-looking. The quarterback Wilson had been running with the ball, and Williams lunged at his feet to tackle him as he threw. It definitely looked as though it should not have been a penalty.

But I wasn’t that surprised by the flag. That’s because I had just watched yet another weekend’s worth of crazy, unpredictable, and flat-out incorrect calls by the so-called “replacement referees,” the ones working games while the regular, experienced refs are locked out from working over a labor dispute.

That is to say, like many fans, I had started to become accustomed used to such weirdness -- e.g., unexpected flags, surprising calls, etc. I realized I’d instinctively begun to temper all responses to plays, delaying my reaction as I waited to see whether or not what I had just seen would be called back, or a ruling would be revised, or a challenge would be upheld, and so on.

I wasn’t even pulling for either team, especially. I picked the Packers to win in Pauly’s Pub “pick ’em” pool, but so did most everyone else, which meant a win or loss wouldn’t really affect the standings. But I nonetheless realized I was starting to get weary of all the uncertainty that came with trying to follow the game.

Others on my Twitter feed had been commenting on the game and the poor officiating throughout the night. That’s when I thought I’d weigh in, too.

“The NFL has turned into a game of do-overs and didn't-counts,” I tweeted. “No play ever is as it appears.”

Little did I realize what was to come. And how that observation would subsequently apply.

Another blunder from the refs would follow, an incredible, obviously wrong call of defensive pass interference that gave Seattle 30-plus yards of field position. Seattle ultimately saw their drive stall deep in Green Bay territory, the Packers had to punt it back with less than a minute to go, and the Seahawks drove down to the Packer 24-yard-line. Three incomplete passes later, they faced a fourth down with just eight seconds left. Seattle would have to throw into the endzone on what was likely going to be the last play of the game.

You know what happened next. Wilson threw the pass. Green Bay safety M.D. Jennings went up above a crowd to catch it. Seattle receiver Golden Tate pushed Packer defensive back Sam Shields to the ground, jumped for the ball and landed next to Jennings, kinda sorta jamming his hands where Jennings held it against his chest. Two referees -- neither of whom had been close to the area of the catch -- rushed over, took a quick look, then at the same time one signaled touchback (an interception) while the other signaled touchdown.

Madness ensued, punctuated by a reiteration of the touchdown call, a very rapid replay review to confirm, a much-delayed extra point by Seattle, and a 14-12 Seahawks win. Norman Chad swiftly tweeted a jokey comparison to the infamous conclusion to the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game between the U.S.-U.S.S.R., which was actually quite apt.

“No play is ever as it appears” I had said. This one clearly appeared one way, was ruled differently, and as a result the wrong team won the game.

It was not a “simultaneous catch” (that thus goes to the offensive player). It was a simultaneous botch.

Football is a game that like most involves a certain element of chance. Having referees fail to enforce rules consistently or accurately adds significantly to that chance element. The obvious analogy from poker would be to introduce certain changes in the rules or to create a variant which necessarily heightens the luck of the game -- i.e., which lessens players’ ability to affect outcomes.

Just a couple of minutes after my tweet, political commentator and comedian Bill Maher offered an analogy from poker to characterize how odd NFL football had become. “So the NFL with replacement refs is now like a card game with Jokers included as wild cards,” he said. “Every 10 plays or so it just makes no sense.”

Maher really is making two different points, the first of which corresponds to the one I’m saying about chance in poker. Adding wild cards certainly does increase the luck element in poker. As John Lukacs wrote in his 1963 essay “Poker and American Character,” poker becomes more of a “gambling game” as more wild cards are introduced. “It is a contest not between human personalities who represent themselves through money and cards,” complains Lukacs, “but between cards held fortuitously by certain individuals.”

Maher’s second point is more like the sentiment I had just tweeted. And distinct from what he’s saying about playing with jokers which is kind of a tangential idea referring to how players unfamiliar with wild-card games find them confusing. From a spectator’s point of view (I was saying of the NFL), the game frequently “makes no sense” with all the “do-overs” and “didn’t counts.”

And, of course, plays that aren’t as they appear.

I might draw a poker analogy from James Thurber’s great 1932 short story “Everything Is Wild” that features a character named Mr. Brush inventing a poker variant on the spot he claims goes by the names of “Soap-in-Your-Eye” and “Kick-in-the-Pants.” (Hear the story read on episode 13 of the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show.)

The game is utterly incomprehensible, with multiple (and changing) wild cards and plays foreign to other variants. As a result no one other than Brush has any idea what is going on as they play. (There’s a partial explanation in the paragraph to the left.)

Of course, the game that Brush invents is not designed to be a context for actual competition -- it is a big ruse fashioned by himself for his own amusement and to get back at others whom he believes are too enamored with wild-card games.

Players and coaches in these NFL games are very much in the position of Brush’s opponents right now, with rules being misinterpreted and misapplied with such frequency that it feels like the game itself is becoming something other than the one they’d formerly played, a game in which outcomes are being controlled less and less by what they do.

To say the NFL has become a “wild-card game” at present is an understatement. I can’t imagine having to play it right now for high stakes.

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