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 signalled 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.
"They had to admit that, even if they didn't want to," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said of the mistake. "I didn't know it was that bad until I looked at the film. That was an obvious mistake."
Another such error occurred last Sunday in Denver's win at Carolina, and the league acknowledged so the next day.
The NFL said Trindon Holliday's 76-yard punt return against the Panthers should have been ruled a touchback and not a touchdown. TV replays showed the ball coming out of his right hand just before he reached the goal line and then bouncing out of the end zone.
Replay official Bob Boylston confirmed the touchdown, so referee Alberto Riveron did not stop the game for a replay review.
"Actually it happened last week, too, and I thought I was actually in the end zone this time, but they told me I wasn't," said Holliday, who had a 105-yard kickoff TD return in Cincinnati two weeks ago.
Now, Denver coach John Fox has implemented the Holiday Rule, and the returner must bring the ball to the sideline and hand it to special teams coach Jeff Rodgers.
Procedural issues have cropped up, too — something the NFL expected with the replacements, even placing a supervisor in the replay booth; those supervisors no longer are there. Nor is an eighth official, who served as, if you will, a replacement for the replacements and travelled with those crews in case he was needed to step in.
During last Sunday's tie between the Rams and 49ers, there was a runoff of 1 minute, 12 seconds when the clock was never stopped during a measurement. It ran from 13:32 to 12:20, then was wound properly for the next play. But 7 seconds later, it was stopped to see if an error had been made.
Referee Clete Blakeman announced, "We're checking the game clock for accuracy." After another delay, Blakeman said: "The clock was correct and it's fourth-and-short."
Blakeman also made an incorrect announcement at the overtime coin flip, saying both teams would get a possession. That only is guaranteed if the team with the first possession of overtime kicks a field goal.
On Monday, the NFL acknowledged the clock error.
Wrong announcements pale in comparison to what happened at the Dolphins-Colts game on Nov. 4, when referee Tony Corrente cursed while officials were discussing a penalty. The crowd in Lucas Oil Stadium heard it, as well as a subsequent verbal indiscretion, which also made it onto the TV broadcast.
CBS announcer Kevin Harlan immediately apologized to his audience.
"What you want to do is make sure (officials) are handling all duties and that includes the microphone," Anderson explained, stopping short of staying whether officials are fined for blatant goofs. "We look internally for their grading and it could have an impact. Is it a potential discipline transgression? We don't announce what those are publicly; people are held accountable."
Where broadcasters might be doing a disservice to their viewers and listeners is in simply not knowing the rules — although Fox broke ground a few years ago by hiring former NFL officiating director Mike Pereira to explain calls in every game it handles. ESPN now uses former referee Gerry Austin.
But the inaccuracies that still infiltrate some broadcasts, on radio and TV, are worrisome to the NFL because imprecise reporting often aggravates the problem.
More often than not, officials get it right. Yet if they get criticized in the media even when they are correct, it's misleading and potentially inflammatory.
The NFL conducts a media tour each summer where it encourages announcers and analysts to "dive into the rules, the points of emphasis and the rule changes the competition committee has articulated," Anderson said. Videos of legal and illegal plays are shown, and the broadcasters are encouraged to learn the technical aspects of the rule book.
"The concern is well stated," Anderson said. "We, too, believe they are not always as well prepared as they should be. Misinformation is not positive for anyone.
"We believe (broadcast) folks are taking note. They have a platform and a voice and when they have that, their words carry more weight. We hope those who have that platform will be committed to studying and fully learning the rules."
It's a hefty chore, with all the rules and their tangents and offshoots. That Steelers fan wondered if the crew or anyone else at Pittsburgh's 24-20 victory understood the tuck rule, perhaps the most obscure of all NFL rules. What looked like an attempt to bring the ball into his body by Ben Roethlisberger was ruled a fumble. New York linebacker Michael Boley ran 70 yards with it for a touchdown.
"Sometimes," he said, snapping the Terrible Towel for emphasis, "you just wonder if anyone knows what's going on."
AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton and Howard Fendrich, and Sports Writers Joseph White, Tom Canavan, Michael Marot, Steve Reed, Antonio Gonzalez and Janie McCauley contributed to this story.
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