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Seventeenth down

There now follows a ranking of the most notable errors and poor decisions by the NFL’s replacement referees, who took charge of all 48 regular season games in the first three weeks of the league’s regular season.

We of course thank the replacement referees for giving it the old college try, and we also thank the NFL and the NFL Referees Association for reaching an agreement that has permitted the union member referees to resume work for this week’s games.

  1. New Orleans at Carolina, SUN 16 SEP 2012: Scheduled side judge Brian Stropolo was pulled from the squad just hours before kickoff when the NFL discovered his Facebook page, which identifies him quite clearly as a Saints fan. Timothy Keese filled in. Though this is, strictly speaking, an error by the league office, we are assigning heavy blame to Stropolo’s error in judgement. All officials, regardless of how long they have been in the league’s employ, have a responsibility to be honest about their potential biasses. Stropolo should have informed the league that he is a Saints fan as soon as he applied for the job, and if not then, certainly when he was assigned to a game involving that team. By covering this fact up, Stropolo broke the bond between the league and the officials it employs to oversee its games fairly and objectively.
  2. Green Bay at Seattle, MON 24 SEP 2012: Trailing by five, the Seahawks had the ball at the Green Bay 24 with 00:08 to play. Russell Wilson’s pass to the end zone was intercepted by the Packers’ MD Jennings, but as he fell to the ground, Seattle’s Golden Tate also put his hands on the ball, leading to the now infamous clip of side judge Lance Easley signalling for a touchdown and back judge Derrick Rhone-Dunn signalling to stop the clock. The play was ruled simultaneous possession; however, according to Rule 8, Article 1, Section 3, Item 5 of the NFL rules, “It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control”. Referee Wayne Elliott upheld the touchdown after review. The result meant that Green Bay, favoured by 3½ points, did not cover the spread. The decision is believed to have shifted upwards of US$150,000,000 in wagers.
  3. Pittsburgh at Oakland, SUN 23 SEP 2012: Early in the fourth quarter, the Raiders’ Darrius Heyward-Bay was knocked unconcsious by a helmet to helmet blow by Ryan Mundy. Referee David White and his crew kept their flags idle, though the league office eventually fined Mundy US$21,000.
  4. Detroit at Tennessee, SUN 23 SEP 2012: The game ended at 41-41 and went to overtime, with the Titans winning the toss and electing to receive. Craig Stevens caught a 24 yard pass and was tackled by Stephen Tulloch, which was ruled a helmet to helmet personal foul. The play was then reviewed and changed to an incompletion, so the penalty should have been marked from the original line of scrimmage, the Tennessee 44. However, referee Gerald Wright and his crew marked it from the Detroit 44 instead, resulting in a 27 yard penalty. Tennessee would go on to score the winning field goal.
  5. Cincinnati at Washington, SUN 23 SEP 2012: Washington trailed by seven points but had possession at the Cincinnati 34. Robert Griffin III spiked the ball to stop the clock at 00:07. On the next play, Washington’s Fred Davis was flagged for a false start. At least one official told the Bengals that there would be a ten second runoff, which would have ended the game. In the end, though, referee Matt Nicks and his crew correctly ruled that because the clock was stopped, no runoff is applied. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was then called against Washington. However, the ball was then moved 25 yards to the Washington 41 yard line instead of the 20 yards – five for the false start and fifteen for the unsportsmanlike conduct – that should have been marked off. The game recap hilariously listed the unsportsmanlike conduct as a 20 yard penalty.
  6. San Francisco at Minnesota, SUN 23 SEP 2012: Trailing 24-13 on defense, the 49ers used their first two timeouts at 03:39 and 03:35 in the fourth quarter. On the next play, the Vikings’ Toby Gerhart was stopped for no gain but fumbled; the officials ruled the play down. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh used his third timeout but then challenged the play, which should not have been permitted. Referee Ken Roan reversed the ruling and restored the 49ers’ timeout, and Harbaugh later used another challenge on another fumble. The end result, then, was two challenges that should not have happened.
  7. Tampa Bay at Dallas, SUN 23 SEP 2012: The Cowboys’ Tony Romo threw to Kevin Ogletree in the end zone late in the second quarter, but Ogletree could not make the catch. Replays showed that Ogletree slipped on a hat thrown by one of the officials, presumably either side judge Jeffrey Garvin or back judge Bobby Jackson.
  8. Seattle at Arizona, SUN 09 SEP 2012: In the fourth quarter, the Seahawks used timeouts at 01:39 and 00:59. Then, at 00:42, with the clock stopped due to an incompletion, Seattle’s Doug Baldwin was injured, which forces an automatic timeout inside the two minute warning. However, referee Bruce Hermansen announced that because the clock was not running, no timeout was charged. Seattle then used its last timeout at 00:30. After the game, Hermansen issued a statement admitting his error; per NFL rules, injury timeouts inside the two minute warning are charged regardless of whether the clock was running.
  9. Denver at Atlanta, MON 17 SEP 2012: Referee Ken Roan and his crew had severe difficulties managing this game, most notably when a bench clearing brawl broke out between the teams at the end of the first quarter. Many players pushed one another, and some were observed to push the officials. The game was delayed for over six minutes, but the scuffle resulted in only one penalty.
  10. Cleveland at Cincinnati, SUN 16 SEP 2012: With 03:25 remaining in the second quarter, the Bengals’ Andy Dalton threw an incomplete pass. However, the clock continued to run; referee Jerry Hughes and his crew failed to notice that 29 seconds were run off the clock.
  11. Washington at St Louis, SUN 16 SEP 2012: In the second quarter, St Louis coach Jeff Fisher challenged the ruling of a Steven Jackson fumble. However, because turnovers are now automatically reviewed, coaches may not challenge such plays. Referee Wayne Elliott should therefore have penalised the Rams fifteen yards.
  12. Indianapolis at Chicago, SUN 09 SEP 2012: The Bears were forced to use a timeout after referee Wayne Elliott and his crew failed to restart the play clock following a penalty.
  13. Philadelphia at Cleveland, SUN 09 SEP 2012: With just over three minutes remaining and a six point deficit, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick fumbled, and recovered it himself, at Cleveland’s 23 yard line, one yard short of the line to gain. Browns coach Pat Shurmur then challenged the play. Referee Ken Roan had to consult with replay official Tom Sifferman for six minutes before finally concluding that the play was not reviewable. Philadelphia went on to score the winning touchdown on that drive.
  14. NY Jets at Pittsburgh, SUN 16 SEP 2012: With 7:06 remaining in the fourth quarter, Steeler Isaac Redman ran for six yards, but Jets coach Rex Ryan challenged the play, believing that Redman had fumbled. Referee Jerry Frump upheld the ruling on the field, even though the replay showed that Redman was actually down in the backfield.
  15. Baltimore at Philadelphia, SUN 16 SEP 2012: Immediately after the two minute warning, with a six point deficit, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick threw an incompletion. However, referee Robert Frazer and his crew initially ruled it a fumble recovered by the Ravens. The decision was reviewed and overturned, and Vick eventually ran for the winning touchdown.
  16. New England at Tennessee, SUN 09 SEP 2012: There were three occasions during this game in which the Titans believed that the Patriots should have been flagged for defensive pass interference in the end zone. Referee Jerry Frump and his crew kept their flags on their belts on all three occasions.
  17. New England at Baltimore, SUN 23 SEP 2012: Patriots coach Bill Belichick was left fuming at the high number of penalties, though 14 of the 24 accepted penalties favoured his team. The Ravens’ Justin Tucker kicked the winning field goal as time expired; although scoring plays are automatically reviewed, a field goal is not reviewable when, as in this case, the ball passes over the upright. However, Bruce Hermansen and his crew failed to explain this to the spectators and the coaches.