Everyone in the NFL likes Pete Morelli. The 19-year veteran is consistently one of the league’s highest-graded, most-respected officials. Last year he won the Art McNally award, the NFL’s highest honor for an official, for his career body of work. Yet Morelli and his crew are having the single worst officiating season I can remember, with a series of high-profile fuck-ups. Add one more to the tally, when the crew gave the Lions a timeout they didn’t have.

On the final play of the first half of last night’s 35-27 Lions win over the Saints, New Orleans was down on Detroit’s 1-yard-line. Just as the ball was snapped, Lions safety James Ihedigbo signaled for a timeout. The officials blew a whistle and stopped play. One problem: Detroit didn’t have any timeouts left.

The officials huddled, and Morelli got on the mic to announce that since the Lions were out of timeouts, the down would simply be replayed.

Morelli spoke to a pool reporter after the game:

Why was the play stopped?

“A timeout was granted inadvertently on that play. We stopped the clock, the whistle was blown.”

Why no penalty for calling a timeout they did not have?

“There is no penalty on that type of play. The only penalty on timeouts is when they freeze a kicker. By rule, there’s no foul, no penalty by rule (for) granting an extra timeout.”

He’s right! There is no penalty for taking a timeout you don’t have. That seems like a failure of the rulebook, but the Morelli crew’s mistake was losing track of timeouts and blowing the whistle in the first place. They should have just let play continue.

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It’s the latest embarrassment for Morelli’s crew. Just this year, they’ve been responsible for a series of gaffes:

  • In Week 5, they failed to notice that the game clock continued running after a kickoff, costing the Steelers 18 seconds before their final drive. Side judge Rob Vernatchi was suspended one game.
  • In Week 10, they missed a false start by the Jaguars on what should have been the final play of the game. Instead, the Jaguars got one more chance and beat the Ravens. The NFL quickly admitted the error.
  • In Week 12, they had a hellish Sunday calling the Cardinals-49ers game. They erroneously took away a down from Arizona, on another occasion stopped play for six minutes to try and figure out what down it was, and threw (or didn’t throw) a series of very iffy flags. The NFL demoted the crew from the next week’s primetime game.

Assuming Morelli hasn’t mysteriously and instantly lost his talent, what could be going on? His crew is largely veteran—including Morelli, they average 11.4 years in the league, and aside from one rookie line judge and one third-year back judge, they each have at least 10 years of pro experience.

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But they haven’t had a ton of time together. Of the seven officials under Morelli, just two were part of his crew last year. (If this is indeed a problem, note that Roger Goodell has floated the idea of mixing and matching crews ).

It could just be bad luck for Morelli. All it takes is one of his subordinates blowing a whistle when they shouldn’t, or one taking their eye off the game clock, and the whole crew gets tarred with the error. Functionally, it doesn’t matter—the crew is Morelli’s responsibility, and they all suffer when the week’s grades come in. Fair or not, don’t expect to see Morelli or anyone from his staff on the field in the playoffs—when the officials will be getting some curious extra help from the league office.