Backup Officials Melt Under ‘Monday Night Football’ Spotlight

The Atlanta Falcons’ 27-21 win over the Denver Broncos last night put a prime-time spotlight on the struggles of replacement officials now in their second week of regular-season games.

With the National Football League’s regular officials locked out in a labor dispute, the backups worked a relatively criticism-free first week before drawing the ire of players and media members after Week 2, which was capped by mistake-plagued officiating and long delays in the 3-hour, 27-minute game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The first quarter alone took 56 minutes as the officials frequently huddled in confusion.

“It was the longest first quarter that I’ve ever been involved in,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said at a news conference after the game.

The NFL defended the substitute officials, while also saying it was investigating whether one of them told LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles that he had the running back on his fantasy football team.

Both teams’ first touchdowns came after video reviews reversed the referee’s on-field decision. The Falcons’ Michael Turner was thought to have scored only to have the play overturned because he landed short of the goal line. He scored on the next play. The officials also ruled that Demaryius Thomas failed to get both feet in bounds on Denver’s first touchdown. The replay showed a good catch.

A fumble by the Broncos’ Knowshon Moreno at the end of the first quarter left the officials confused about who recovered the ball. During the scrum, in which it was eventually ruled that the Falcons gained possession, Broncos center J.D. Walton appeared to shove an official and the Falcons’ Ray Edwards appeared to throw punches, which should have merited an ejection. Edwards was flagged for unnecessary roughness and allowed to continue playing.

Video Review

Other officiating missteps included a pass interference call that overturned after video review showed that the pass was tipped, and a play in which the ball was spotted incorrectly following a defensive-holding penalty.

Complaints also came from the game’s broadcasters on ESPN, which pays $1.9 billion a year for the “Monday Night Football” rights. Play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico likened the officiating to having a substitute teacher, giving license to the players to misbehave.

With many of the NFL’s replacements having had officiating experience only below the highest level of college football, the troubles concluded a weekend of games plagued by officiating issues even before the first kickoff.

Saints’ Fan

A side judge who was scheduled to work the New Orleans Saints’ game against the Carolina Panthers two days ago was removed from his duties the morning of the contest because he had posted photos on Facebook that showed he was a Saints’ fan.

The Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco and Ray Lewis were publicly critical of officiating in the team’s 24-23 loss at the Philadelphia Eagles. Flacco said the substitutes were “affecting the integrity of the game.”

“For our league to be what it is we have to correct that,” Lewis added. “The time is now. How much longer are we going to go through this whole process?”

Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said yesterday, a day after his team lost 31-28 to the St. Louis Rams, “I’ve never been a part of a game that was that chippy.”

“I don’t know what they’re arguing about, but I’ve got a couple (million) on it, so let’s try to make it work,” Hall said to reporters, according to USA Today. “I’m sure the locker room could put up some cash and try to help the cause out.”

Winner’s Lament

Among the first-week complaints was one by Buffalo Bills Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams, who said penalties against him weren’t called.

“Pass blocking doesn’t include hands to the face,” he said. “When someone tells the officials that, and they just walk away, or they don’t call it, that is disheartening.”

Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the league, said yesterday that officiating is “never perfect” and that the backups were “performing admirably under unprecedented scrutiny.”

“We are looking at how to improve officiating for the long term and that is an important part of the negotiations,” he said today in a separate statement.

Aiello also said the league was looking into McCoy’s statements about the referee’s fantasy football connection.

“They’re like fans,” McCoy told 94 WIP radio in Philadelphia. “One of the refs was talking about his fantasy team, like, ‘McCoy, come on, I need you for my fantasy.’”

Game officials aren’t permitted to play fantasy football, Aiello said.

The NFL and the NFL Referees Association are disputing pay, pensions and operational issues, causing the league to make a schedule for the replacements to work through Week 5 of the regular season, ESPN said.

A telephone interview left for Mike Arnold, the chief negotiator for the referees union, wasn’t immediately returned.

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