Following a third straight weekend of botched calls, second-guesses and controversial game endings, NFL replacement referees are taking more heat than ever from players, coaches, analysts and fans.
Week 3 featured several officiating debacles, culminating in New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick grabbing a referee's arm while leaving the field following a 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in a Sunday night classic. The league has yet to announce sanctions, but it's a safe bet that Belichick faces a stiff fine for his actions.
Like many who took the field Sunday, Belichick was incensed by what he thought was a blown call. But despite the NFL's well-documented stance on abuse of officials, Belichick told the media afterward he didn't believe he would be fined.
He did, however, offer veiled frustration when asked about the performance of the officials - and why he put his hands on the referee.
“I’m not going to comment about that. You saw the game. What did we have, 30 penalties called in that game?”
(It was 24 ... but still.)
Sunday's games offered plenty of intriguing storylines - the San Francisco 49ers suddenly looking mortal, the Arizona Cardinals improving to 3-0 for the first time since 1856, The Houston Texans emerging as an early Super Bowl favorite and Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith catching two touchdown passes on the same day his younger brother was killed in a motorcycle accident.
And yet, all anyone could talk about as the sun set on Sunday's action was what an awful job the officials had done - again. And the complaints are getting louder and angrier.
While some of the reactions are of the knee-jerk variety - like Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes Tweeting that the referees should go back to Foot Locker - many are measured, calculated responses to three weeks worth of confusion and frustration. ESPN columnist Jackie MacMullen eloquently said what so many people are thinking, imploring NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to "stop the madness" and end the league's labor dispute with its regular officials.
The best examples of yesterday's transgressions paint a bleak picture about the state of officiating in one of the most popular professional sports leagues.
The 49ers looked terrible against the Minnesota Vikings but nearly pulled things out thanks to a pair of bumbles that allowed San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh to use timeouts he didn't have to challenge plays. Referee Ken Roan admitted the mistake, saying he misinterpreted the rule.
Associated Press writer Barry Wilner points out that several other mistakes - some involving yardage marking, others involving ruling on fumbles - were made over the course of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, negotiations between locked-out officials and the NFL took place over the weekend, but it isn't known about whether any progress was made. Goodell has been indignant in his support of the replacement officials, though that confidence may now be wavering following another week's worth of miscues.