ORCHARD PARK — Uh-oh!
No, not the fact that the Bills’ first-team offense looked decidedly out of sync.
Not even that Buffalo’s starting defense performed in underwhelming fashion and Mario Williams, the $100 million man, was invisible.
The real problem on Thursday night at Ralph Wilson Stadium had nothing to do with the Bills, or the Redskins who beat them 7-6 in the preseason opener.
Instead, the issue was — ahem — officiating.
With the NFL having locked out its regular officials, these exhibition games are being worked by second-tier college crews and, last night, it showed.
Granted, the Bills’ offensive short-circuits were mostly self-inflicted.
But one horrendous call and an equally egregious non-call showed why some of these crews aren’t exactly helping the NFL’s bargaining position with its regular officials.
THE FIRST came with just under four minutes remaining in the opening period.
Buffalo’s Brian Moorman hit a punt deep into Washington territory and it was clearly covered by wide receiver Ruvell Martin at the 4-yard line.
But line judge Rondell Taylor inexplicably called it a touchback ... putting the ball at the 20.
Angry, Bills’ coach Chan Gailey — after a view of the indicting Jumbotron replay — threw a challenge flag and the call was reversed almost immediately.
The officials got it right, but Gailey had to waste one of his two challenges to change a call that should have been beyond obvious.
“I don’t know what he saw,” said an incredulous Williams.
Fittingly, a Bills’ fan quickly pulled on an officials’ jersey with the words “Blind Judge” on the back.
Two minutes later, Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick — who had an awful night — fired a pass toward wideout Stevie Johnson who had been thrown to the ground by a Washington cornerback while the ball was in the air.
Though it happened in a wide-open area, there was no flag for interference, despite the cascading boos.
And that wasn’t all.
In the third quarter, Bills’ wide receiver David Clowney was flagged for a hold and almost immediately the NFL officiating observer on the field called the supervisor in the press box via walkie-talkie and exclaimed, “That was a horrendous call by the umpire.”
When it was over, the college officials — by agreement the NFL won’t use those from the major conferences, SEC, Big 10, ACC, Big 12 etc. — had called 23 penalties for 190 yards and three others were declined.
“It seemed there was a penalty every play ... one way or the other,” Williams maintained.
That certainly seemed true of Buffalo, flagged 14 times for 134 yards, 11 on the offense including three false starts in a span of four snaps.
IN FAIRNESS, though, the game was undeniably inartistic.
As Gailey noted, “It looked ugly, it felt ugly and it was ugly.”
And opening preseason contests have traditionally been flag-fests, no matter who’s officiating.
But while Fitzpatrick said, “it was frustrating all night,” Gailey blamed himself for his team’s nine false start, alignment and motion infractions.
“That’s a lack of discipline and that’s my fault.”
Then, too, focusing on the officials’ shortcomings deflects from how unimpressive the Bills looked on what was supposed to be a coming out party for a team seen as a potential surprise contender in the AFC.
Fitzpatrick was 6-of-14 passing for 61 yards with a 56 passer rating. He was sacked on his first drop-back and his eight incompletions included four overthrows, two tipped balls and one pass behind the receiver. He also lost a 20-yard touchdown pass to Johnson when C.J. Spiller was penalized for illegal formation.
In Fitzpatrick’s 15 plays — 14 passes and the sack — Buffalo gained only 56 yards.
By contrast, Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, was 4-for-6 for 70 yards with a 20-yard touchdown pass, including 3-for-4 for 58 yards on the TD drive. He passer rating was a gaudy 145.8.
AFTERWARD, Fitzpatrick admitted of the offense’s performance, “I thought it was poor. We did not do a good job of executing. Luckily its preseason ... the beginning of the preseason and we knew there would be some sloppy stuff. (But) we have a lot to work on.
He added, “There was no game plan. We wanted to go out there and try to get it figured out on the field (but) we were not real successful.”
It got so bad, place-kicker Rian Lindell, who made an NFL record 321 extra points to start his career, badly missed a 22-yard field goal ... the same length as a PAT.
Buffalo was outgained only 253-219, but while Washington had four sacks, Buffalo managed none.
Williams was credited with no tackles, while Mark Anderson, the other key free agent signing, had one.
Rookie cornerback Ron Brooks got an interception, but dropped another and his teammates bobbled three others.
In short, it wasn’t a good opening night.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)