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Replacement ref defends the controversial call that turned the NFL upside down

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Lance Easley is best known as replacement ref No. 26, and days after making one of the most infamous calls in NFL history – one that was so controversial it led to the end of a lockout that, in turn, ended his Walter Mitty run of calling pro games – he isn't backing down.

"It was the correct call," Easley told TMZ.

Yes, TMZ. Who else? That's how big Easley's decision was to declare a contested Hail Mary a touchdown for Seattle rather than an interception for Green Bay – which is how virtually everyone else, but not the NFL itself, saw it. Even TMZ is chasing down replacement refs.

Easley's call will forever be etched in history thanks to a photo of him signaling TD while another ref waved for the stop of the clock [even though the game was over]. It gave Seattle the win and sparked such outrage the NFL caved within 48 hours to the NFL Referees Association and ended the lockout.

[Related: NFL gives into public pressure, brings back refs]

Regular refs will be on the field for Week 4, starting with Thursday night's game between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. They'll receive a huge pregame ovation and by, oh, the second quarter, everyone will be complaining about them too.

View photo

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Lance Easley (R) signals TD on the game's final play. (Getty)

"Sorry to have to put our fans through that," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said of replacement refs in general, a rare (sort of) mea culpa from a man known for his definitive verdicts.

Of course just Tuesday the league was saying Easley did, indeed, make the proper call. He was also backed on Monday night by an experienced replay crew that didn't see enough to overrule the call on the field – which isn't exactly the same as saying it was the right call originally.

All of which is just part of why Easley should be as defiant as he wants going forward, declaring his judgment proper and his poise perfect in that critical moment.

Why apologize? Why acknowledge an error? What the heck, go out swinging.

He volunteered to play a real ref in Goodell's outlandish gamble with the game's credibility. He certainly could've, and perhaps should've, declined the chance to be an NFL ref by taking stock of his limitations as mostly a California high school ref.

[Michael Silver: Welcome back refs; it's been too long]

But it wasn't his idea to offer a guy with those qualifications the job in the first place. He took his shot. He lived the dream. He was one high-profile play from being able to go home and brag around the bar forever about the time he worked Monday Night Football.

The entire replacement ref experiment was an ill-conceived fiasco. The blame here is on Goodell and the NFL owners, who thought the refs were replaceable in the first place. Unable to lure top college officials, they basically figured they could round up any group of guys off the street and it wouldn't produce a noticeable difference.

When it did, glaringly, there is no reason for a guy such as Easley to take the fall and limp back into the high-school ranks apologizing. If the league treated this as a joke, no need for him to take it too seriously.

So forgive him for going bold.

"You have to not only have the ball but have either two feet or a body part on the ground and that never happened," he said of Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings. As such, Easley argued, with Seattle's Golden Tate also controlling part of the ball, it was a contested catch. And the rules state a contested catch goes to the offense.

"Put any other official who knows the rules and they would make the same call," Easley insisted.

We're not sure about that. But we'll let Easley have his moment of defense.

There's no need to shed a tear for a guy who willingly and knowingly put himself in the spotlight, but he isn't the cause of the problem either.

He wound up getting ripped, mocked, blamed, harassed, and, at the same time, told by the NFL not to speak publicly. He was basically forced, he said, to "fall on the sword."

[Related: Officials will work Thursday]

Then he was dumped along with all the rest of the replacement refs.

Here's one part in which Easley is 100 percent correct: This was an extraordinary situation he found himself in Monday. A contested, Hail Mary, game-winning catch/interception on national television is a situation that would cause the most hardened and experienced of referees to take a gulp before making the call.

It was a tsunami of responsibility, the game's outcome literally hanging in the balance as a soldout stadium screamed, huge men pushed and shoved and the seconds ticked by like hours.

[More: The worst calls in sports history]

No one is accusing him of wanting to make the wrong call. He did his best. He never should've been in that situation in the first place.

"I don't appreciate the negative stuff," he noted.

He better get used to it. No one is ever going to believe he made the right call. But there's also no reason for him to agree with them.

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