As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan left the Meadowlands two weeks ago, he raised his right hand — a Terrible Towel in it, naturally — and loudly asked: “Who brought back the replacements?”
And his team won.
No, NFL officiating hasn’t sunk back to the level of the first three weeks of the season, when the usual referees, umpires and linesmen were locked out in a contract dispute. The calls by the replacements were so inconsistent and, at times, so inexplicable that officiating began overshadowing game results. The quality of the product on the field was diminished by the lack of quality among the whistle-blowers, none of whom came from the highest ranks of officiating.
The regulars’ return in Week 4 was celebrated by players, coaches and fans alike.
The celebrating has ceased.
Instead, we hear complaints about blown calls, inadvertent whistles and hard-to-explain video review decisions.
We hear one referee cursing after unwittingly leaving his microphone open. We have the league admitting after the fact that several calls were incorrect.
And we have game announcers, whether on regional or national broadcasts, steadily criticizing the officiating.
While admitting it is impossible to have perfection in officiating, or anything else, NFL executive vice president of football operations Ray Anderson praises the officials for doing “a very good overall job.”
“There are always going to be some shortcomings, these are humans making the calls and it has always been that way, “ Anderson said. “We work on those things, such as the announcements, and we are not overly concerned about their performance.”
What about the unprecedented attention being paid to the officiating?
“Certainly one of the effects of the lockout was the scrutiny on officials and officiating,” Anderson said. “It became an all-time high and, frankly, once the regular officials came back, we and they anticipated it would be at a higher level than ever experienced.”
Some would say the officials aren’t thriving under the attention.
On Nov. 4, Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams swept right and ran for a 30-yard touchdown, using some nice footwork to stay inbounds. Trailing the play, line judge Thomas Symonette blew his whistle because he mistakenly thought Williams stepped out of bounds.
Williams kept running all the way to the end zone and officials signaled a touchdown. Some Redskins complained they heard a whistle: linebacker Perry Riley, who might have had a shot at pushing Williams out of bounds, clearly eased up.
The officials conferred and again ruled a touchdown. Referee Carl Cheffers said they decided the whistle wasn’t blown until Williams reached the end zone, but audio on the replay told a different story. The sound of the whistle is heard when Williams is at about the 15-yard line.
The next day, the NFL released a statement saying the crew got it wrong. Symonette’s inadvertent whistle should have stopped the play dead at the 17, where he thought Williams stepped out of bounds. Alternately, Carolina could have also chosen to replay the down at the 30.