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December 6, 1998: When is a helmet a football?

Vinny Testaverde dives toward the end zone to secure a win. Actually putting the ball over the goal line is optional.

M. David Leeds/Getty Images

Vinny Testaverde dives toward the end zone to secure a win.  Actually putting the ball over the goal line is optional.

There is probably no more difficult job in sports than officiating.  Almost every call is dissected, booed, and now, subjected to slow motion replay frame-by-frame, and God forbid if you're nice enough to be a volunteer coach at a PeeWee or Little League game.

League officials—the officials' employers—speak openly of fairness, acknowledging mistakes while wishing to retain what they call the "human element."  The "human element": is there no more politically correct way to say "the occasional complete screw up?"

And with current social media, the job has become that much harder.  Still images abound from fans and commentators alike of plays that "should" have been called, but never were.  In current context, the question of a catch now requires more slow-motion replays than the Zapruder film.  One call, questionable or not, can bring the game, already slowed by multiple time-outs, injuries, conferences, and general shitstorms, to a near halt.

Every franchise seemingly has one part of its lore wrapped up in controversial officiating calls: the Fail Mary, the Immaculate Reception, the Tuck Rule, Super Bowl XL, and so on.

But there's no cute nickname, no capitalized entry into lore for what happened in late 1998 to the Seahawks.  Perhaps that is because the league (and many fans) were still unused to taking the Seahawks seriously.  They had, after all, not been to the playoffs for a decade, and had posted only one winning record during that time, a 9-7 record that helped them to third place in the AFC West.

Yet, as calls go, this one clearly affected the end of the game, and severely damaged a team's playoff hopes.  And there was no controversy about the call, really; there was no argument to be made, no frame-by-frame analysis or different angles, or slow motion replay that could alter one's perception of reality versus what the officials ruled on the field.  It was obvious enough that most of the New York Jets were openly thanking God (also known as lineman Earnie Frantz) for saving the day.

In 1998, though, the Seahawks were creeping into contender status, and, even though they were 6-6, had a good shot at making the playoffs.

The Seahawks flew to the Meadowlands to take on the also resurgent New York Jets, coached by walking ham sandwich Bill Parcells and quarterbacked by Methuselah himself, masquerading under his modern name of Vinny Testaverde.

Fast forward through the game, which went back and forth, and the Seahawks were leading 8-4 Jets 31-19 at the end of the third quarter.


The Jets were the clear favorite, as, after opening the season 0-2, had gone on an 8-2 slapping spree, sparked by Testaverde's latest sip from the fountain of youth.  And the Seahawks had been written off as mid-carders, the team good enough to beat the bad teams, but bad enough to lose to the good teams.  They were destined for 8-8 (which they would achieve).

The 5-6 Seahawks had essentially dominated the first three quarters of the game, but the Jets crawled back to make it 31-26 after Keyshawn Johnson got the damned ball in the end zone.

The teams traded possessions over the next several minutes, unable to gain a foothold and start a drive.  When the Jets finally started moving the ball, there remained just over three minutes left in the game, and the Jets had the ball at their own 36.

The recipe for disaster in a football game, as we know, contains multiple ingredients, and the nice thing about making disaster stew is that you only need a few of them.  Add a pinch of conservative coaching, a few dropped passes, poor field position, horrible time management, player brainfarts, Jon Kitna, fatigue, and, suddenly, you have a disaster waiting at the three-yard line.

On first and goal, the Jets were flagged for illegal procedure, giving the Seahawk defense considerably more room.  A quick handoff to Larry Johnson earned the team a yard and Johnson considerable bruising.

From the seven-yard line, the Jets decided to hand off to Curtis Martin.  No surprise there, as Parcells seemed to use every game-winning play as an opportunity to give the ball to Martin.  The stout Seahawks interior of Sam Adams and Cortez Kennedy made the tackle.  Yes, you may be Curtis Martin, but you're Curtis Martin running toward 650 pounds of very large and determined humanity.

So, here it is: fourth and goal at the five.  If you read the official game log, the person who typed it was either a Jets homer, or has a bitter sense of irony.  Here goes:

"Testaverde sneaks up the middle and fights his way in for a five-yard touchdown."

By "fight," the writer means "bandied about by men twice his size," and by "touchdown," the writer means ... well, I don't know what the writer means.

Because to everyone in the stadium, for every fan of every team, even the guy who paints his nipples green and kisses Testaverde photos when no one is looking, it wasn't a touchdown.

It was nowhere near.

Looking at the photos, it's hard to see what the officials saw.  Testaverde is lying there in the fetal position, washed ashore over the tide of humanity.  The football is somewhere at the one-yard line.  Even Testaverde's helmet is short of the end zone.  The officials are right there and looking down at Testaverde.

And then they call it a touchdown.

Later, head referee Phil Luckett (who was probably exhausted from taking night classes on Heads and Tails Interpretation), said that Frantz made the call as soon as the pileup occurred.  It was an obtuse statement, of course, one that essentially said "no do-overs, ya losers."  A more likely excuse would be if the officials just admitted they mistook the tiny green football on Testaverde's helmet for the real thing.  Such an excuse would make sense given that Parcells, ever nefarious and calculating, has changed the Jets uniforms to feature the football on the helmet again.  It paid off, Bill.  Good work.

There would be a ceremonial end-of-game deep-field Hail Mary, and for a brief moment, the Fates decided to toy with the Seahawks, as Kitna completed a 46-yard pass, but the lateral, with no time left, failed, and the Jets raised their arms in the air, thanked the higher powers of football, and gloated on the field.  For the Seahawks, most of them adopted a familiar pose: brows furrowed, mouth slightly agape, and hands on hips.

The Seahawks would win the next two games against the Chargers and the Colts, driving their record to 8-7.  They would end the season with a loss to the 14-2 eventual Super Bowl Champion Broncos.

8-8.  There probably would have been a big difference between 8-8 and 9-7.  The sixth AFC seed for the 1998 playoffs were the 9-7 New England Patriots, coached by some guy named Pete Carroll.  I'll leave it to others to talk about tie breakers and strength of schedule and the like, but the truth is this.  A near-miss in the playoffs at 9-7 is a lot more palatable than a near-miss in the playoffs at 8-8, with one loss coming from a horrible, unfathomable officiating call.

The fallout for the Seahawks would be severe, but, ironically, for the better.  Human punching bag Dennis Erickson would lose his job, replaced by Mike Holmgren, who would immediately guide the team to an AFC West championship and the playoffs.  And he would do it with most of Erickson's leftovers (in a case of "it's a small world after all," the Seahawks backup quarterback in 1999 would be Glenn Foley, the guy benched by the Jets for Testaverde).

For the NFL, the change would become more seismic.  The league would, after much discussion, presumably with large 36x48 posters of Testaverde on the ground hung on the walls in the meeting room, allow for instant replay to "assist" officials in making the call.

For some, the decision is a Pandora's Box, and one can certainly feel most of the evils in the world while listening to Phil Simms narrate a slow-motion replay for the thirteenth time.  For others, there is little solace in the replays, as they grind the game to a halt and may not have a quantifiable effect on many of the games.  Refs gonna ref is essentially that argument.

Either way, the game is since forgotten by many fans of the league, and has earned no nicknames, which is a shame, but also understandable, as a few words cannot possibly encompass the utter silliness embedded in the call itself.  There is little doubt, however, that the call, and the game, changed the NFL forever.