Officials pass the buck in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS --Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher burned red with anger Sunday after a 20-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints that saw several confusing calls by the officiating crew.

How did the face of the NFL evaluate the officiating crew of referee Ed Hochuli and company?

"I'm not pointing my finger at them, but they sucked,'' Urlacher said. ''The NFL can fine me, do whatever they want to, but that was not a good job by them. They made a few calls that were costly to us.''

The Bears were whistled for five penalties for 86 yards, including two close pass-interference calls against rookie cornerback Charles Tillman, who has been called for pass interference four times in three weeks. But it was the calls against the Saints that really had the Bears fuming.

When New Orleans appeared to have blown a perfect scoring opportunity before halftime, only to see the officials essentially award them three points because of an illegal shift, the Bears went ballistic. Hochuli later told the pool reporter that the problem was with the clock operator, not his crew.

An illegal shift does not require a 10-second countdown as other penalties might. Hochuli said the penalty does not shut down the play, but requires that the clock be stopped when the play ends, which in this case occurred when the forward progress of Saints fullback Terrelle Smith was stopped by R.W. McQuarters and Mike Green at the 3-yard line with a couple of seconds left.

''Several of us look at the clock at that point; we're trained to do that,'' Hochuli said. ''We see there's one or two seconds left at that point, and the clock operator went ahead and ran the clock out. We have to put the time back on the clock, and that's why we put a second back on.

''The foul is against the offense, but the rule is that inside of two minutes in the first half on a penalty, the clock starts on a snap, so we got a second back on the clock because the clock operator ran the clock when he shouldn't have. He should have stopped it at one or two seconds, and they get another play because the half's [not] over, so it looks a lot more complicated than it really is.''

But the official observer in the press box said it was the correct call. In this case, though, the offense was rewarded for a mistake. Instead of having the clock run out, the Saints got a chance to kick a 30-yard field goal for a 6-3 halftime lead.

If that call infuriated the Bears, their anger only grew in the third quarter when the officials picked up a flag on a touchdown that gave New Orleans a 13-3 lead. The early indication was that Saints tackle Wayne Gandy was illegally downfield on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Brooks to Ernie Conwell, which would have resulted in a third-and-12 from the 14. Instead, the touchdown was upheld ''after discussing it further,'' as Hochuli told the crowd over the public-address system.

''How could they make a call and then just pick up the flag?'' defensive end Phillip Daniels asked.

Again, Hochuli said his crew got it right in the end.

''One of our officials ruled there was an illegal lineman downfield, and after the play, he looked at it again and he realized he was looking at the wrong stake,'' Hochuli said. ''He was looking at the beginning of the drive when actually the line of scrimmage was two yards beyond that. So he was looking at the wrong stake when he saw the guy was two yards downfield when actually it was at the line of scrimmage.''

The Bears didn't lose the game because of bad officiating. They lost because of poor run defense, no pass rush and no passing offense when they needed it most. Still, the fact that every call seemed to go against them only served to further fuel the growing tidal wave of misery that is drowning this team.

Urlacher speculated that Hochuli must have been working with a new crew because of all the mistakes.

But with a 1-4 record, the Bears have tagged themselves. Maybe that's why they can't get a call.