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This Weekend in NFL Stupid, feat. a phantom fumble and the league’s reaction to it

This Weekend in NFL Stupid highlights the dumbest decisions in football throughout the season. This week, we once again focus on something that happened in a Cleveland Browns game. But this time, it’s not Cleveland’s fault!

The phantom fumble

When we put together our “This Season in NFL Stupid” post in February, we may have to lead with what happened with 9:41 to play in the fourth quarter Sunday in Washington.

That’s when Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson was tackled after picking up what should have been a first down. At the end of the play, Johnson fumbled, but the ball bounced right back to him. He casually stood up with the ball in his hand, but that didn’t stop line judge Sarah Thomas from immediately awarding the ball to the Redskins.

This was, without a shadow of a doubt, a botched call. As you can see, Johnson clearly has the ball in his hands the moment Thomas looks into the pile and inexplicably signals that the Redskins recovered the fumble.

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Watch it in real time and, again, it’s entirely clear that Thomas made a mistake.

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NFL mouthpiece Ian Rapoport noted on Twitter that Johnson didn’t emerge until after the call was made, but that’s simply untrue.

In fact, The Big Lead found that the whistle hadn’t even been blown when Johnson emerged with the ball.

Of course, Hue Jackson couldn’t challenge the play because it was a turnover. It was automatically reviewed, and the league office decided that there was no definitive evidence that the Browns recovered the ball in the scrum.

But common sense says they did, and that the Redskins never had the ball.

So here’s a summary of the stupidity at play in this case:

1. Thomas botched the call. Not the worst thing in the world — botched calls happen in real time.

2. The league’s replay officials failed to apply nuance or common sense, upholding a bad call. That not only does a disservice to the Browns and their fans, but also Thomas and that officiating crew. Had the call been overturned, we wouldn’t be criticizing Thomas today.

3. The league tried to whitewash the entire ordeal by insisting that there was no evidence the Browns recovered, forgetting that we can all see clear evidence with our own eyes.

If — as has been suspected — the NFL is trying to sweep this whole thing under the rug in order to protect its only female official, that has backfired. Had the league issued a statement today admitting the call was blown and the review failed, a few keyboard warriors would have ripped Thomas with sexist remarks online. But then we would have moved on.

Now, instead, this story has an extended shelf life. Instead, Thomas is taking even more heat. And that’s a shame, because again, officials screw up calls in live action. That’s inevitable. Thomas’ performances are reviewed by her employer, so I’m confident that she’ll be held to the same standard as her peers. One bad call doesn’t make her a bad official, but because the replay process flopped and the NFL decided to take an arrogant approach, her mistake has been magnified.

Thomas isn’t stupid, but the league she works for sure can be.

Other Stupid Things from Week 4

** Jeff Fisher spent like a decade on the competition committee… 

And yet, the Los Angeles Rams head coach felt it made sense to challenge the ruling that this was an incomplete pass…

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Before doing so again with this blatantly incomplete pass a quarter later…

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** This is a 15-yard penalty…

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** As is this…

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** And yet this so is this…

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The taunting penalty above — against Allen Robinson — came on the same play as the violent, dangerous and illegal hit from D’Qwell Jackson, and yet the two penalties crossed each other out.

And that is just insane.

** Was Dirk Koetter throwing in the towel?

How the hell else do you explain Koetter’s decision to have the Buccaneers punt down by 20 points midway through the fourth quarter? The Bucs got the ball back just once. They were never going to get it back three times.

** Why was an aging, somewhat injury-prone Ben Roethlisberger on the field at this point?

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** And we leave you with Brian Winters’ decision to head-butt Michael Bennett, which resulted in a flag and gave Winters a concussion…

Brad Gagnon

About Brad Gagnon

Brad Gagnon has been passionate about both sports and mass media since he was in diapers -- a passion that won't die until he's in them again. Based in Toronto, he's worked as a national NFL blog editor at theScore.com, a producer and writer at theScore Television Network and a host, reporter and play-by-play voice at Rogers TV. His work has also appeared at CBSSports.com, Deadspin, FoxSports.com, The Guardian, The Hockey News and elsewhere at Comeback Media, but his day gig has him covering the NFL nationally for Bleacher Report.

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