I am not going to defend the replacement referees from Monday night. I am not even sympathizing with them. But I do understand the mentality they were likely in as the game came rolling to it's bewildering conclusion.
On a much smaller scale, I've been in the position of the referee way out of his league. It's not a pleasant place to be, but I have to take accountability for putting myself in that position to begin with. If you're not ready for it, you need more preparation.
I have been a low-level (but licensed) basketball, football, and (for one laughable year) volleyball official for the WIAA. Most of my experience had been at the junior high level, and I never really endeavored to grow and develop much beyond that. This was in the 1990's, as the wave of gymnasium sportsmanship began its slow decline and "gaming the ref" became as much a part of the game as cheering or booing. Eventually, I walked away from both coaching and officiating for a contract. It's not worth the money.
My worst experience as a basketball official was in my younger years, probably at around 23 or 24. I had been reffing junior high and freshman level basketball for a year or two, and the guy who scheduled the officials in our community asked me to take on a JV game. I was certainly excited. It was more pay, and the temptation of becoming one of those varsity referees started to pull me in.
What happened following the opening tip off was a shock. No longer were there slow, deliberate marches up the court and setting up of rudimentary offenses. These was a wild boys' game, full of a lot of action, speed, energy, and a decided lack of coordination and maturity. And every call I made was met with a reaction from the crowd. A loud reaction.
I was used to a slow, methodical drive to the basket, with fouls or travelling calls callable from 50 feet away. Suddenly, drives were a flurry of hands, feet, and bodies smashing into each other. As the game went on, I realized that I was missing a lot of the contact fouls away from the ball, while continuing to focus on the basics: possession, remembering the numbers and foul signals, counting off the five seconds on the inbounds. As every catcall and boo descended from the bleachers, as every angry howl from either coach resounded in my ear, as every player disagreed with anything I called (no matter how cut-and-dried it was), I became inconsistent.
For a stretch, I would call every thing I could see (and some things I couldn't), in an effort to take control of the game. Then, if I made a poor call that everyone howled at, I became passive, and "let them play". As I later realized in my officiating career, there is nothing worse than being inconsistent. Nothing. If you are going to be loose, you be loose all game. If you're going to call it tight, you call it tight all game. If you don't call the hand as a part of the ball for one team, call it the same the other way.
But, what I did is invited the escalation of emotions by the players, as they became frustrated with not only the missed body contact fouls, but the one I then did call later on (usually on the kid who had just been flattened early with no whistle). As the game went on, it became more and more physical, with my whistle (or lack thereof) an increasing source of crowd rumbling.
Now, this is the important part, and how it plays into the Monday Night Football game. I was in over my head, in more way than one. Not only was I trying to officiate a game that was way too fast for me to process, I began to detach. If I could describe it, it would be "passive officiating". I stopped trying to control the game, and prayed the game would finish without a problem. I called the feeling "reffing underwater" even back then.
If you look carefully at the Packer game last Monday night, you can see this pattern: a flurry of flags in the first half, followed by inconsistent periods of high-calls and no-calls, and all the while, overt physical play being ignored...and increasing.
Obviously, I'm not those replacement officials (and thank God for that), but I would be willing to bet by the end of the game, they were in that "let's just get it over" mode. I even noted on Twitter with several minutes to go that the officials had stopped throwing flags and we might go without another one, despite having 28 flags thrown before that. They were just hoping to get to the end of the game with nothing but slam-dunk obvious plays.
But, of course, that's not how these kind of games end. For me, it was a poorly-called foul in the final seconds, with the score tied. The visiting teams' player came tearing down the court in a one-on-one fast break with 14 second on the clock. Tensions were at a critical peak. He was out of control, with one defender backpedaling towards his own basket.
All I could think of was, "Set your feet, so I can call an offensive foul. Set your feet, so I can call an offensive foul." But the defender didn't, and once I saw the contact, I blew the whistle and called the defensive foul. The crowd went completely ballistic. I didn't reconsider. I didn't think it through. The visiting team's guard had figured me out, figured he had a 50/50 shot that'd I'd screw up the call. In reality, at that point, feeling "underwater" as I was, it really was completely true.
He came down the court, and lowered a shoulder into a defensive player that was backpedaling. When I got home that night, following an evening of personal abuse that I really would never want to relive, I knew that I had messed up. I knew that I had simply focused in on one "rule" and ignored everything else. I allowed myself to become part of the game, the focus of the game. I allowed myself to mess up the game. A few free throws made on my bad call was the difference in the final score.
When I look at the officials on that final play on Monday Night Football, I could easily identify with what was going through their minds watching that mass of bodies tangle and jostle. You don't see plays like that every day. You may never see that play more than once or twice in your life, and never with that level of speed and violence. The personal foul on Sam Shields, the blatant push from behind? Wouldn't get called, because the officials were "reffing underwater" and were looking at nothing but the scrum of people, praying that the ball would just fly out of bounds and they wouldn't have to make a call at all.
But, instead of an easy non-call, they did something even worse: they made a non-call on perhaps one of the most difficult judgement calls you can make, something I can guarantee they never had to decipher before in their Division III and high school games--and certainly not with a national audience expecting the right call within a second of the play being finished.
You could see that indecision, the forgotten "who had the ball right away" and defaulting to "who has the ball last" mentality that might have cut it back in Lambeau's day, but has no prayer in this new era of hi-def replays. But most of all, they ignored each other. There was no conference, no checking with one another. They just stared blankly, and each took a 50/50 shot at what they thought the call should be. Sadly, both of the officials picked different calls.
Now, I could have looked to the other ref, who was trailing the play twenty years ago. Yes, it would have been embarrassing to seem as if I wasn't watching the play seven feet in front of me, but in the end, it would have saved me a heck of a lot of abuse. But at that moment, in my mind, I was the only ref on the floor. I was alone and underwater. And I guessed at a call based on one factor of a much larger picture.
But, even if the replacement refs had converged, the slow-motion picture you should have in your mind of the catch had disappeared. And, when they did discuss it after the fact, it was going to be a tough sell to take back the touchdown. Had they called it an interception, the replay officials likely would have upheld it. They guessed at the call, and that call decided the entire game.
As I said, I'm not defending or even sympathizing with the officials. These guys knew what they were signing up for when they crossed the picket line. But I do understand that this is much more than a game being simply "too fast" for these guys. They were reffing underwater.
And like just like 20 years ago, a team paid the price.