The NFL's regular officials received a standing ovation when they returned to the field Thursday night in Baltimore, ending one of the bigger debacles in league history. Commissioner Roger Goodell said he was sorry to the game's fans -- in a news conference and in a letter to season-ticket holders -- and that now everyone can move on.
A few other things could be gleaned from the postgame Q-and-A with Goodell. The NFL may be sorry its fans had to put up with replacement officials, but the hubris that allowed the owners to play chicken with America's most popular game hasn't gone anywhere.
Goodell was still in "Father Knows Best" mode, even when asked point-blank what he thought of the Golden Tate "touchdown" that gave the Seahawks a tainted win over the Packers on Monday night. What was Goodell's judgment call?
"I have not had the opportunity to look through it with our officiating department because I have been in negotiations almost nonstop since the game," Goodell said.
The rest of his answer rehashed the NFL news release issued on Tuesday.
"Their view was that on the field, when you have a call that close, that it stays with the officials on the field," Goodell said. "Replay was not in a position to be able to get evidence that they think was sufficient to overturn it. That is a close call. Those are decisions that our officiating department will make. They felt that standing behind the officials' call was the appropriate thing, and I will stand behind that."
Oh well, he was very busy and couldn't watch the wait a minute. What?!
That replay was so ubiquitous it was practically playing on the back of your cereal box Tuesday morning. And that's if you are a football civilian, rather than the man in charge of protecting the NFL shield. To suggest that he hadn't watched the replay that prompted Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to agree with each other during a heated presidential campaign is simply not credible.
My guess is he watched it and formed an opinion independent of hand-holding from the officiating department. But he couldn't share his thoughts.
It's easy to dismiss Goodell for throwing a smokescreen up to tout the NFL party line. He is in the very difficult position of trying to defend the indefensible. He spent much of the day arguing that the lockout wasn't about money as much as it was about trying to improve the quality of officials by making some of them full-time employees. He also said there was no evidence to conclude replacements had made the game less safe. Tell that to Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who is still suffering the effects of a concussion from a hit that was not flagged.
ESPN commentator Trent Dilfer addressed the NFL's stance on replacement officials after "Monday Night Football."
"And everybody out there, you should be really angry because your intelligence has been insulted," Dilfer said. "The NFL is trying to tell you, 'It's not a big deal, these guys can do the job, the integrity of the game's in place.' It's not."
Goodell's final words on the matter were in the same vein, spending more of the credibility that he has earned over the years.
The NFL is in the process of litigating the Saints' bounty case. That credibility capital is crucial if the NFL wants to present itself as the authority on this issue. There are a lot of strong opinions on both sides, and many players have been critical of the league's discipline.
Goodell needs to be believable. So to hear the commissioner continuing to spin as the real officials were about to take the field Thursday was disappointing.
The headline was that Goodell had apologized to the fans, but the full apology was a little more nuanced.
"We are sorry to have to put our fans through that," Goodell said. "But it is something that in the short term you sometimes have to do to make sure you get the right kind of deal for the long term and make sure you continue to grow the game."
For all the talk about how NFL owners are hard-nosed businessmen, this was a damaging standoff. Management likes to think labor is replaceable, but expertise is valuable, as the replacement refs demonstrated.
The idea that what just happened will grow the game?
Ask a couple of Packers fans how they feel about that.
The damage to the shield goes beyond the issue at hand. The NFL has shown it will sacrifice the integrity of the game for a perceived gain in the bottom line, and that will take more than a standing ovation on Thursday night to remedy.