The officials were far from invisible during Sunday’s Redskins win over the 49ers. There were multiple moments when the men in stripes took center stage: the Brian Hoyer incompletion that was at first ruled a fumble and a Redskins touchdown; the Vernon Davis game-changing fumble that many fans thought should have been ruled down-by-contact; the Jamison Crowder first-down catch that became a not-first-down after a replay challenge; the Pierre Garcon last-minute incompletion that became a first-down catch after a review.
All four of those calls went against Washington (although the Crowder one was obvious, and the Hoyer and Garcon plays probably were as well). But one notable decision went Washington’s way in the final minute, and it helped ensure the Redskins’ win.
San Francisco, trailing by two, had a 1st-and-10 from the Washington 40-yard line with 28 seconds left. That field position would have given the 49ers about a 58-yard field goal attempt for the win. Their kicker, Robbie Gould, is 6-for-9 in his career from at least 54 yards, with a career long make of 58 yards, plus other conversions from 57 yards (in Denver’s altitude) and 55 yards. A few more yards, in other words, and the Redskins were in serious, season-changing trouble.
San Francisco’s C.J. Beathard threw incomplete on first down. On second down, he threw incomplete again, but Garcon was whistled for offensive pass interference, pushing San Francisco back 10 yards and completely changing the calculus. San Francisco would not gain another yard, and there was no last-second field goal attempt.
The call prompted an immediate protest from Garcon, and Coach Kyle Shanahan was none too thrilled. (His team had been hit with another costly late-game offensive pass interference call last month.)
“I saw a slant route on a flat route,” Shanahan said after the game. “And the guy guarding the flat route [linebacker Zach Brown] ran into [Garcon].”
Indeed, Brown was lined up inside on running back Carlos Hyde, and when he ran toward his man (and toward the sideline), he collided with Garcon, who was the intended receiver. So Shanahan was asked whether it can be pass interference on a pick play if the picking player is the intended receiver.
“No, absolutely not,” Shanahan said. “It’s a slant on a flat route.”
Brown, of course, had a different view. He said the 49ers ran the same play in a previous game, and that the defender covering the San Francisco running back went out of his way to avoid Garcon. And in a different game, Brown said, the defender ran into San Francisco’s receiver and earned the pick call.
“So my guy was the running back, and I was just running with him,” Brown said. “And I knew [Garcon] was going to pick me anyways, so I ran to him and I ran into him, but I was protecting myself too, and when he threw the flag, I was like ‘Good flag, ref.’ “
Brown was then asked whether he knew that play was coming.
“We already knew it was a pick,” he said. “I moved outside, and once I moved outside, once [Garcon] flared I moved right here and I looked up. He was coming to hit me either way, and he tried to say it’s a flag on me. But I’m running with my guy and he’s picking me; it’s a flag on him. So I was excited. If they would have called it on me, that ref would have got a lot of words.”
The 49ers’ radio analyst hated the call — “oh, that’s awful. I mean, c’mon. Are you kidding me?” he asked — but Fox’s Daryl Johnston seemed to agree with it.
“Its one of those rubs, those pick plays, and it has to be within one yard of the line of scrimmage, and it looks like Pierre Garcon got a little bit further down, about two yards down the field,” he said. “Basically Pierre Garcon is trying to get the flat receiver open, and he has to be able to do that within one yard from the line of scrimmage. He got beyond that one yard, so it’s offensive pass interference.”
Garcon posted a video of the play on Instagram, writing, “I’m going to just leave this here.” One guesses that he still did not agree.
The season may have turned on that play for Washington. Had Beathard instead thrown the ball to Hyde, and had officials not whistled Garcon for interference, it seems likely that the 49ers would have wound up comfortably in Gould’s range. Instead Washington won, moving to 3-2.