Did the Referees Really Change the Outcome of the Giants-Redskins Game?

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Sunday night’s Giants-Redskins game ended with a bang, as Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon coughed up the football to Giants safety Will Hill to seal a Giants victory with minutes left. The fumble recovery capped off a comeback during which the Giants outscored the Skins 24-3 after a 14-0 deficit. However, as Mike Shanahan’s facial expressions suggested, New York’s fantastic finish was not without its controversy. The referees committed an error regarding Washington’s down number which many think had a significant impact on the game eventually falling in the Giants’ favor. But what was the actual error that occured? Was it enough to significantly impact the outcome of the game? Let’s try to answer both of those questions now:

What Happened?

To start that particular set of downs, the Redskins had the ball on their own 36-yard line. With no timeouts and just about two minutes left in the game, this was Washington’s last chance to score. Down 24-17, they needed a touchdown to tie the game. On first down, RG3 hit Pierre Garcon with a pass for a five-yard gain. On second down, RG3 once again went to Garcon and completed a four-yard pass. However, at this point the line judge believed that the team had gotten a first down and the chain gang moved accordingly. Jeff Triplette and the rest of the refs signaled that it was third down, but when Redskins coach Mike Shanahan attempted to challenge the line judge told him he couldn’t because they had a first down. The Redskins then ran a play on “first down” which ended up as an incomplete pass to tight end Fred Davis. After this play the referees came forward and declared that it was 4th-and-1, not 2nd-and-10 and that the chain gang was wrong. On that 4th-and-1, the Redskins initially converted on a pass to Pierre Garcon but Garcon fumbled the ball, the Giants recovered, and the game ended.

The gaffe essentially appears to have been a miscommunication between the referees. Jeff Triplette and all of the refs except the line judge believed it was third down after the Garcon catch, but the line judge and chain gang believed it was first down. The Redskins then ran a play before the mishap was discovered. Jeff Triplette later stated that he did not want to stop the game to move the chain gang back because it may have given the Giants an “unfair advantage” by allowing them to rest,  but his blunder only increased the gravity of the mistake.

Did it Affect the Outcome of the Game? 

Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth were extremely upset at the officials’ error, as were the hordes of Redskins fans that had packed FedEx Field that night. But did the mistake really impact the game’s outcome that significantly? Did the Giants really win unfairly? Ultimately, that is an extremely hard claim to back up. Many argue that if not for the contradicting calls, the Redskins would not have called a deep pass to Fred Davis on 3rd-and-1 and wasted a play. However, this claim would only possess any real merit if the team had not converted on fourth down. In that case, it could be argued that the play to Davis was clearly an inappropriate one to call in that situation and was only made because of the referee mishap. If they had known it was third down they would have called a more suitable play and possibly picked up the first down, continuing the drive. But because Pierre Garcon’s catch initially picked up the first down, the point about Davis is moot.

There is also the argument that Pierre Garcon may not have gotten the ball on that fourth down if the Redskins had known beforehand. That’s a valid observation, because if they were facing a 4th-and-1 a pass would be unlikely. However, Garcon had been targeted three times in seven plays on that drive, so he probably still would have had plenty of chances later on in the drive to receive the ball and allow it to be stripped. Even if Garcon didn’t get the ball, though, the Giants can be seen attempting to strip the ball on several plays that drive so a fumble could have easily happened later anyway without Garcon’s involvement. Speculating on whether or not Garcon would have coughed up the football is just that: speculation. There’s simply no way to tell whether Garcon would have caught that same pass or whether he would have fumbled or not.

So say if not for the referees screwing up, Garcon doesn’t fumble. The Redskins get that first down and are back in business. Now for the claim to be made that the referees had a significant impact on the game, it has to be proven that the Redskins could have easily scored a touchdown to cap off the drive and tie the game. However, in the game’s second half the Redskins punted the ball four times and the only points they scored were on a single field goal. They only gained 73 offensive yards and RG3 was sacked four times. Washington’s offense was completely shut down after they scored two touchdowns in the first quarter, so the notion that they would have suddenly marched down the field and into the end zone is unrealistic. Not only that, but even if they had somehow scored and tied the game, they would have had to orchestrate another successful offensive drive to score the winning points in overtime. Even if the details surrounding the plays to Fred Davis and Pierre Garcon are ignored, even with a fresh set of downs it’s unlikely that the Redskins would have been able to tie the game and have a good chance at winning later.

Conclusion:

The referees in the Giants-Redskins game made a pretty huge error. No one disputes that, and clearly Jeff Triplette should be on the hot seat as this is not the first time he has screwed up in a big way. However, the argument that the blunder in any way cost the Redskins the game is unfounded. Did it hamper their efforts on the last drive a bit? Yes, but not in a way significant enough to warrant any sort of serious discussion of whether or not the Giants won fairly. Maybe the team wouldn’t have thrown to Fred Davis, but it doesn’t matter because they converted the fourth down regardless. Maybe not throwing to Davis would have then resulted in a different play than throwing to Garcon, but it’s not as though he wouldn’t have had his chances on that drive and arguing what the play call could have potentially been is a dead end. And finally, maybe the Redskins with a fresh set of downs and no fumble would have found the end zone, but considering how they had been performing in that game it’s once again unlikely that without the referees’ mistake much would have changed. Treat this like a coach’s challenge: the ruling on the field is that the Giants won fairly, and there’s just not enough evidence to overturn that.

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Geoffrey Morton

An avid New York Giants fan with a passion for sports writing who is proud to be a part of Pro Football Networks!
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