In a normal season, a group of NFL referees taking a few minutes under the lights of "Monday Night Football" to figure out where a ball should be placed after a defensive holding penalty would be amusing. But with replacement officials making scenes like that one too common and sometimes struggling with the rules of the game, the amusement has begun to fade.
"Honestly, it's embarrassing," Mike Tirico, an ESPN announcer, said in the second quarter of Monday night's game between Denver and Atlanta. "The command and control of this game is gone."
Two weeks into the regular season, with the NFL's lockout of its officials going strong, replacement officials have awarded a team an extra timeout in a close game, ruled multiple incomplete passes as fumbles, missed an array of pass interference and unnecessary roughness calls and in one game took six minutes to review a play they subsequently determined was not reviewable. One referee was removed from the crew of a New Orleans game after publicly proclaiming himself a fan of the team.
In a recent radio interview, Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy suggested the replacements might be approaching the game as supporters rather than officials.
"I'll be honest, they're like fans," McCoy said. "One of the refs was talking about his fantasy team, like 'McCoy, come on, I need you for my fantasy.' "
Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers' coach, was so exasperated by the officiating in a Week 1 win over Green Bay that he threw a challenge flag and the broadcast crew speculated he had done so simply to give the officiating crew a piece of his mind.
So far, however, the league is shrugging off the criticism, issuing a statement after Sunday's games in support of the replacements.
"Officiating is never perfect," the statement said. "The current officials have made great strides and are performing admirably under unprecedented scrutiny and great pressure. As we do every season, we will work to improve officiating and are confident that the game officials will show continued improvement."
The situation has provided so much fodder for critics that the sports website Deadspin, with the help of readers on Twitter, has been compiling a list of the blunders, a process called Scabwatch.
"Once is funny, like when Seattle gets a fourth timeout and can't even make hay of it," said Drew Magary, a writer for Deadspin. "But now the calls are so bad that you really don't expect any play to be officiated properly. (Pittsburgh's) Ike Taylor got flagged for nothing on Sunday. It was insane."
The sentiment through one week of games was that even with a few bad calls, the officials had performed reasonably well.
Chris Kluwe, the outspoken Minnesota punter, had been critical of the replacements in the exhibition season but defended them recently on Twitter, saying, "The replacement refs did a good job at our game; couple missed calls but nothing egregious."
In the second week, however, players brazenly exploited weaknesses they had discovered in the ways the games were being called.
In one instance, Cortland Finnegan of St. Louis openly shoved Josh Morgan of Washington in an attempt to bait Morgan into retaliating despite being in front of an official. When Morgan responded by throwing the ball at Finnegan, he was immediately flagged. The penalty cost the Redskins a chance at a comeback.
"There's no doubt the integrity of the game has been compromised by not having the regular officials out there," the New York Giants' Mathias Kiwanuka said Tuesday.
Taking advantage of the lack of judgment is a process Magary says will continue as long as the replacements are on the field.
"Why not? They're trying to win and preserve their employment," Magary said. "It's not their fault the NFL has handed them this massive weakness to exploit."
One issue the critics and the league disagree on is the effect the replacements have on player safety.
Some have speculated that missed calls and players trying to take advantage of the replacements' inexperience could lead to more injuries, a belief that NFL spokesman Greg Aiello dismissed. He pointed out there have been 75 safety-related calls through two weeks this season compared with 74 over the same period last season. He also says the league's system of fines helps to ensure player safety.
"It is longstanding policy that players are subject to fine and/or suspension for an illegal hit even if a penalty was not called on the play," Aiello said in an email. "So players know they are held accountable to the safety-related rules even if the game officials miss one, which has happened in previous seasons. We have seen no evidence that player safety is being compromised."
"You saw it last night," he said of the officiating during Monday's game between the Broncos and Falcons. "You see how out of control it's getting. Someone will get blinded at the bottom of a pile or get their jaw broken."
With no movement reported toward a settlement, it appears Week 3 will also feature replacement officials. And the criticism is likely to continue.