LANDOVER, Md.—Precious few football teams can withstand repeated mistakes to win. And no one is confusing Washington’s 2019 NFL squad with, say, the 1985 Chicago Bears.
There were plenty of reasons why Washington fell to 0–2 in the preseason with Thursday night’s 23–13 loss to the equally unimpressive Cincinnati Bengals: poor blocking and tackling at times, a lack of offensive sync and a second straight week allowing a punt return touchdown.
Still, as Jay Gruden and his staff dissected tape on Friday, they surely returned to the most glaring shortcoming: penalties. Ten for 105 yards, to be exact.
Flags are hardly uncommon in exhibition games, as new teammates strive for cohesion and players who’ll be substitute teaching next month make high-speed, on-field mistakes. And the home team committed several of those (although the Bengals were guilty of a dozen infractions themselves).
But several of Thursday night’s calls seemed dubious at best and left Washington’s players and coaches scratching their heads. It’s preseason for zebras, as well.
“It’s crazy. I don’t know,” said always loquacious cornerback Josh Norman, at a rare loss for words. “I’m trying to find out myself. ... We’ve got to get more clarification upstairs.”
Norman earned a rare double play, being flagged for unnecessary roughness while apparently diving for an Andy Dalton pass intended for Giovanni Bernard, then making contact with an official while protesting. While the second call was justified, the first didn’t seem to be. Jonathan Allen’s tackle of Bernard on the previous play likewise appeared neither unnecessary or rough, but he was flagged as well.
Neither of those calls was as curious, though, as the two offensive pass interference flags thrown against rookie receiver Kelvin Harmon.
On the first, early in the fourth quarter, fellow rookie Dwayne Haskins underthrew Harmon slightly on a fade route. Harmon adjusted and raised his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame high above Bengals cornerback Davontae Harris, who crashed into him as the ball clanked to the turf.
Instead of an incompletion, though, the officials called interference—on Harmon. Gruden exploited a new rule (thanks, L.A. Rams!) that allows coaches to challenge pass-interference calls or no-calls, just as he had in the first half when Cam Sims was legitimately flagged for a pick route that negated a 44-yard completion from Case Keenum to Steven Sims. Both flags were upheld after review.
NFL Officiating posted on Twitter Friday that Harmon had pushed off before going up for the pass, although referee Shawn Hochuli neglected to mention the offense when asked about the call by a pool reporter after the game.
Harmon was flagged again later after making a catch on a similar play. This time, the Bengals successfully challenged the call, and it appeared Harmon grabbed a Bengals defender’s shoulder as he began his leap.
“Everybody was just devastated,” Harmon told NBCSports Washington after the game. “Nobody could believe it.”
Thanks to the notorious no-call at the end of last season’s NFC championship games, coaches now have to decide when to challenge judgment rulings. That will take time. You can be sure Gruden will spend some time on the phone with the NFL office in New York this weekend, seeking clarification (since an apology is highly unlikely.)
Officiating is hard, especially at the highest level, where everything happens at warp speed. The NFL has taken plenty of justifiable heat in recent years for its vague, now-extinct “tuck rule” (which would have negated a lost Haskins fumble Thursday night), as well as what constitutes a reception. Last year, it was a rash of ludicrous roughing-the-passer calls that even had quarterbacks shrugging in disbelief.
Washington, like all teams, is going to make plenty of legitimate mistakes this season. Gruden is simply asking not to add any inexplicable ones to the list.
“I don’t know. All is know is I want Kelvin Harmon to do that every time the ball is in the air,” Gruden said. “That’s why we drafted him because he is aggressive when the ball is in the air. If he can’t do what he did in this game, then I don’t know what he can do. ... We’ll get the explanation hopefully tomorrow or the next day, but I applaud Kelvin for his effort going out and attacking the ball.”