MINNEAPOLIS -- As the NFL's replacement officials bumble through their now two-month stint, we often have discussed the difference between errors of judgment and errors of facts. All officials, replacement or permanent, make the former. The latter, borne of misunderstanding or misapplication of rules, is far less excusable and has generated a significant credibility question for the current system that no one seems to care about.
We saw yet another example of it Sunday in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota Vikings' 24-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. In essence, referee Ken Roan granted the 49ers a challenge at a time they were ineligible for one, ultimately leading to a change of possession on what Roan ruled a fumble by the Vikings' Toby Gerhart. Roan admitted the mistake in an interview with a pool reporter after the game, and fortunately for all involved, the decision did not impact the outcome.
The details: With three minutes, 33 seconds remaining in the game, Gerhart gained three yards on second-and-10 at the 49ers' 35-yard line. The 49ers called their final timeout in anticipation of a critical third-down play. But during the timeout, coach Jim Harbaugh threw his challenge flag after noticing on replays that Gerhart lost control of the ball. (The 49ers' Patrick Willis had fallen on the ball.)
A team must have at least one timeout available to mount a challenge, and technically, Harbaugh had just used his last one. Roan said Harbaugh called him to the sideline and said: "Hey, this is something that I want to challenge, but I just used my last timeout, can I challenge and get my timeout back? How does that work?'
"He asked the guys on the side and they came over and got me," Roan added. "What I told him was, 'Well you challenged it not knowing what the result of the play was going to be.' So I granted him the challenge and we went and looked at it. That was wrong. I should not have. In order to do that, he has to have two timeouts left."
Actually, he needs just one. But we'll let that one slide for the larger point. Roan is only partially at fault here. It's totally unreasonable for the NFL to have expected lower-level officials to master its thick and nuanced rule book in time to make a credible showing this offseason. They are particularly vulnerable to suggestion in that area, and I wonder if Harbaugh really needed to ask, "how does that work?" Obviously we can't prove it, but you wonder if Harbaugh didn't try to capitalize -- smartly, I might add -- on the uncertainty to gain a competitive advantage.
Gerhart did in fact lose control of the ball before he was down, even though it appeared that umpire Tim Morris was in the process of blowing the play dead (by raising his hand). Again, it's important to note the play didn't affect the game's outcome. Four players later, Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson intercepted quarterback Alex Smith to ice it. But the game was not over until Harbaugh used the timeout that Roan gave back to him to challenge another potential fumble two plays after Robinson's interception.
I know there were other erroneous calls in NFC North games Sunday, but this is the one I witnessed. This joke can't end soon enough.
Related: Roan's crew made an impossible call on the opening kickoff but quickly corrected it.