There is no doubt the NFL's latest officiating gaffe hindered the Washington Redskins' attempt to tie their game Sunday night against the New York Giants. It was not the primary reason they absorbed a 24-17 loss, however, and so it's important to consider this incident from a league-wide perspective.
One of the most basic expectations for on-field officials is to maintain control of the game. That includes accurately tracking the downs, a fundamental task that referee Jeff Triplette and his crew failed to achieve in the final minutes of a one-score game. On its own, the mistake is not a crisis. But when you consider it in the context of a series of related incidents this season, you have a cumulative impact that erodes at least some confidence in the NFL's officiating system.
There will never be a perfectly officiated game, but generally speaking, you want mistakes to be of judgment rather than administration and/or rule application. Two reasonable people can debate whether a defender should be called for pass interference. That is absolutely part of the game. We should not, however, be left to rue officials' losing track of downs, getting confused on calls subject to replay or forgetting about rule exceptions.
All that and more has happened this season, beginning with referee Bill Leavy, who misinterpreted the rules in two games, and continuing more recently with referee Clete Blakeman's crew, which inexplicably picked up a flag at the end of the Carolina Panthers' 24-20 victory over the New England Patriots on Nov. 18.
Sunday night, Triplette signaled that it was third down after a Pierre Garcon reception. Head linesman Phil McKinnely, however, instructed the sideline markers to move and changed it to first down. The Redskins based their play calling on those markers, running a play on third down when they thought it was first down.
Triplette could have stopped play to correct any confusion, but he told a pool reporter that it would have been unfair to the Giants to give the Redskins what amounted to an extra timeout in their two-minute drill. Mistakes are inevitable when humans are involved, but it seems to me that Triplette compounded McKinnely's error by deciding against correcting it.
To be clear, officials themselves aren't fully to blame for these incidents. As we've discussed before, they have an enormously complex and nuanced rule book to keep track of. More teams are running fast-paced, no-huddle offenses. And there have been no announcements of full-time officiating hires since the end of last year's lockout, a pledge the NFL made as a way to improve its system.
My sense, however, is that most fans and observers aren't as interested in the whys and the hows. They simply want to watch a game knowing it will be officiated with competence, even if perfection is not an option. The 2013 season has given us too many examples to question the former.