Rarely do we see an NFL game without at least one or two questionable officiating calls. The job is really, really hard. The game is faster than ever and fans are better equipped to spot mistakes than ever before.
Equally rare, however, is seeing the type of criticism that Mike Pereira levied on Saturday night after the Tennessee Titans' 22-21 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Pereira, the former NFL officiating chief turned Fox Sports analyst, knows intimately how difficult the job can be. And yet Pereira crushed the work of Jeff Triplette and the referee's playoff crew after a series of odd calls in the wild-card matchup.
Horrible way to start the playoffs. I hate to say it but this was not a good performance by the crew. Teams and fans deserve better.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) January 7, 2018
As an amateur observer of officiating, I was prepared to chalk Triplette's performance up to the large swamp of debatable officiating we've seen in football as far back as I can remember. When you accept that officials will never be 100 percent accurate, life is a lot less stressful. None of Saturday night's calls directly impacted the outcome of the game, and most of the mistakes ultimately were corrected by replay review.
But when Pereira -- who speaks his mind, but is no way incendiary when it comes to officiating -- uses the word "horrible," it's worth taking notice.
As I noted in our wild-card officiating scouting report, Triplette has a fairly earned reputation for extended discussions and occasional high-profile gaffes. There are certainly referees who inspire more confidence that the game is under control. And to be fair, playoff assignments are determined by regular-season grades. But Triplette and his crew didn't support their presumably high grades on Saturday night. The worst moment, in my opinion, came in the third quarter. After Marcus Mariota caught his own deflected pass for a touchdown, Triplette explained that the Titans quarterback was an eligible receiver because Mariota had been in the shotgun formation.
But that actually had nothing to do with it. According to the NFL rulebook, all offensive players are eligible receivers -- offensive linemen, quarterbacks, everyone -- after the ball is deflected by a defensive player. Triplette made the right call, but his inaccurate explanation meant, frankly, that he didn't have his rules straight. As understandable as the mistake was given the NFL's complex rulebook, no one should feel confident about a referee in a playoff game reciting a phantom rule.
Triplette's performance will also be scrutinized for what was, if nothing else, a very quick whistle after Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson sacked Mariota late in the second quarter. Mariota appeared to fumble the ball, which Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston grabbed. But Triplette said that Mariota's forward progress had been stopped before the quarterback fumbled it, rendering the play dead at that moment. Titans place-kicker Ryan Succop kicked a 49-yard field goal on the next play.
The decision was a judgment call and thus was not eligible for review, but a look at the replay showed Mariota fumbling almost immediately after contact. Speaking to a pool reporter after the game, Triplette said: "The defender hit him and he was driving him back."
That might be true, but I think we all have an idea about the end of "forward progress" -- a running back stopped but not on the ground, or a quarterback standing in a pocket with three defenders trying to bring him down. You don't often, if ever, see it applied to a quarterback who is going to the ground on initial contact.
It's hard to say that a second-quarter field goal changed the outcome, even in a one-point game. But at the very least, I think the Chiefs were a victim of questionable judgment in that case. Let's put it this way: If the same play happened 10 times, I would wager that at least nine referees would all consider it a fumble.
When you combine those two plays with a fourth-quarter gaffe -- when Triplette's crew first ruled that Titans tailback Derrick Henry fumbled, and that the Chiefs' Johnson returned it for a go-ahead touchdown -- it's hard to argue that the game was well-called. (Especially when you consider that it sure sounded like someone on the crew whistled Henry down before Johnson's return.)
When Pereira describes officiating as "horrible," then you can feel certain that the performance fell well below NFL playoff standards. Wild-card referees are usually in the pool for the championship round, but something tells me that Triplette won't be there. So it goes.