It was months ago back in November when I said that the story of the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers season could not properly be told without a mention of the officiating in select games over the course of the year. While Pittsburgh didn’t lose to the officials, they certainly made things much more difficult than they should have been, particularly in two late games.
But it actually started in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns when the officials failed to rule that a punt had touched rookie running back Nick Chubb’s helmet, which was subsequently recovered for what should have been a fumble by Sean Davis. The punt occurred in a 21-7 game with nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
This is significant because Head Coach Mike Tomlin ended up getting fined for his remarks regarding the officiating after the Atlanta Falcons game, and subsequently doubling down on those initial comments. He called the officiating “a joke” and said that it was costing people jobs.
That would sure come to be even more significant than he realized, highlighted by some critical moments in losses to two of the top teams in the NFL last season, first to the Los Angeles Chargers and then to the New Orleans Saints.
The Chargers ended up scoring not one but two touchdowns on plays on which penalties should have been called but were not. The first was a long touchdown pass from near midfield on which the right tackle overtly jumped early for a false start. The second was a long punt return touchdown on which the nearest gunner was visibly blocked in the back right in front of the return man.
Several weeks later in New Orleans, a critical early play, a long pass on fourth down to Alvin Kamara in the end zone, was flagged for pass interference against Joe Haden. It was more or less acknowledged that this should not have been a penalty after the fact, but that did little good. The Saints quickly scored after that in a one-possession victory, even if that occurred early in the game.
I’m sure there were other moments, but those were three games that the Steelers failed to win in which they were either denied a possession or their opponents were given points because of relatively routine calls that qualified officials should be able to make consistently.
In every case, it needs to be emphasized, the Steelers had the lead in these three games after these officiating errors occurred, so, again, they were very winnable contests even in spite of the poor hand they were dealt.
Nevertheless, officiating should be a neutral part of the game, and that wasn’t the case a little too often in 2018. Like I said, they had other opportunities to change their circumstances, but I don’t feel a complete picture of the season can be painted without some black and white stripes and yellow rectangles.