"It was like the The Twilight Zone," says Easley. "They're talking about me all over. Leno, Letterman.... It was just bizarre."
The thing about cataclysms: They're so powerful that they consume most nuances and most particulars until all that remains is a single truth, a single narrative. But what if what we think we see in Otto Greule's photograph isn't really what we are seeing? What if, of all the errors the replacement officials made in their seven weeks on the job, the ruling that broke the NFL—the one made by Lance Easley, upheld by Wayne Elliott—was not one of them?
The first thing to know about Greule's image is that it does not—as is widely believed—depict two officials making directly contradictory calls. Yes, Easley is ruling the play a touchdown for Golden Tate and the Seahawks. But Rhone-Dunn is not ruling an interception for M.D. Jennings and the Packers. "That's the international sign for stopping the clock," says Easley. "He's basically saying, Let's talk about it."
"I don't know why he chose to give that signal rather than do nothing," says Elliott. "If he just wanted to talk, he didn't have to give any kind of signal."
Easley saw no need to discuss the ruling with Rhone-Dunn for several reasons. First, he did not see Rhone-Dunn waving his arms until his own were already over his head. Second, through weeks of media scrutiny unlike any he had experienced while working D-III, junior college and high school games in California, he had been conditioned to be decisive. "It went through your mind before every call: If we stop and talk about it, they're going to crucify us," he says.
Most important, though, was this: "I had the play," says Easley. "Derrick came in late. I was alone. I looked up at [Rhone-Dunn], and in my mind I'm going, Goddangit, I've got it; I've got joint possession. I said to myself, Boom—we've got to sell it."
What Easley was trying to sell, however, was one of the most difficult calls any official has ever had to make, as it involved multiple vague rules (both written and unwritten) and their application to a play that was almost certainly unique in its complexity and the number of quickly moving body parts involved. This was a Rorschach test designed by a diabolical and unseen hand.
"The problem with that play was the play itself," says Easley. "It was so bizarre, you can't explain it. The fans want black and white, crystal clear. It was just ugly. If I had called something else, [other] people would have been pissed off. It didn't matter what I called. We were screwed."
One thing on which everyone agrees is that Tate committed offensive pass interference against Packers defensive back Sam Shields, shoving him to the ground just before Wilson's pass arrived. The NFL admitted as much on the following day when it issued a statement otherwise upholding the call—a statement that was given about as much attention as Chip Diller crying, "All is well!" near the end of Animal House.
At any level of football, however, offensive pass interference is rarely called in an end-of-game Hail Mary situation. (According to the NFL Network, it hasn't been called in the last 87 such plays, going back five years.) "It's like basketball," says Easley. "If there's a final shot and everybody's at the rim, there ain't going to be a whistle. You can see it, but philosophically, do you call it? No. The biggest, toughest guy wins."