We were all waiting for it, weren't we? At some point, the replacement officials were going to bungle something on an epic scale, the wrong team was going to win, and the NFL was going to have to come to its senses regarding the lockout that has the real officials on the sidelines until further notice.
It almost happened at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday afternoon, late in the game between the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals. The replacements gave the Seahawks an extra timeout by failing to count an injury timeout that should have been automatic, and were it not for an interesting epidemic of butterfingers by Seattle's receivers and some excellent coverage by Arizona's underrated defense, the Cardinals could very well have been cheated out of a win. In the end, Arizona pulled away with a 20-16 victory, but they had to work a bit too hard for it.
Here's how it went down. The real drama started with the Seahawks at the Arizona 27-yard line and 59 seconds left on the clock. Quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass deep right to receiver Sidney Rice, and Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson got a little too grabby on the coverage. The resulting pass interference call gave the Seahawks the ball at the Arizona 13-yard line.
Then, after a drop by Braylon Edwards in the end zone, Wilson zinged a frozen rope to the middle of the end zone, and receiver Doug Baldwin couldn't come up with it. At that point, the Seahawks had used two of their three possible timeouts, and when Baldwin appeared to be injured, there should have been an automatic timeout charged to the Seahawks, because NFL rules indicate that any injury within the 2:00 period would be treated as such.
Running back Marshawn Lynch took the ball up the middle for 2 yards to the Arizona f4-yard line, and the Seahawks either called what they believed to be their third official timeout, or they were spitballing and hoping the refs would mess it all up.
Which the refs did. After Seattle was given what amounted to a fourth timeout in the half, there was the usual long conference between the replacements and the officiating supervisor on the scene. At the end, head official Bruce Hermansen came in with his ruling.
"Seattle did have a timeout to use," Hermansen said on the field. "Their third timeout was the result of an incomplete pass, followed by an injury. The clock was not running; they were not charged with that timeout. This was their third and final timeout."
After the game, Hermansen told the pool reporters that "It was my error. We gave them the additional timeout because of the incomplete pass stopping the clock before the injury occurred. When in effect, the clock has no bearing on the play at all, whether it's stopped or running, we should not have given them the additional timeout."
The Seahawks had three more downs to try and get in the end zone, but that first attempt would have been rushed, Wilson probably would have had to spike the ball, and who knows what would have happened? In any case, after three more Wilson incompletions, the Cardinals got the ball back, and they ran out the clock for the victory.
It was all good in the end, the NFL will inevitably say, because the team that should have won, did. But anyone who watched the debacle could not feel anything but embarrassed for a league that has clearly put ancillary financial concerns ahead of the administration of its games.