Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 8, 2015

When The Zebras Show Their Stripes, Everyone Loses

With few exceptions professional rules officials want nothing more than to be invisible. Baseball umpire Joe West seems to relish being the center of attention; and NFL referee Ed Hochuli graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in October 2012, though the official best known for his Popeye-like biceps claims to be baffled by his celebrity. But by and large the men and on rare occasions women in the striped shirts or blue uniforms know that if they are doing their job well fans will be focused on the game and its players. This is not to say that even the best official doesn’t blow a call from time to time. They are all human and no matter the sport, officials are called upon to make instantaneous decisions from the beginning to the end of every contest.

Hochuli’s magazine appearance celebrated the end of the NFL’s lockout of its regular officials and the dismissal of the replacement referees who worked the first three weeks of the 2012 season. In that brief period of time the substitutes made football fans across the land yearn for the return of the dues-paying members of the NFL Referees Association. The league and the union finally settled their differences with some help from a mediator. The regular refs returned to the field and order was restored. Or it was until last Sunday, when the crew working the Wild Card playoff game between Detroit and Dallas became the center of attention in the worst possible way.

The Lions had the Cowboys on their heels throughout the first half. After forcing Dallas into a quick three and out, Detroit scored on its first possession when quarterback Matthew Stafford found wide receiver Golden Tate on a 51-yard pass play. Later in the first quarter Stafford guided his team on a 99-yard drive, capped by an 18-yard touchdown run by Reggie Bush.

The Cowboys finally got on the board with less than two minutes remaining in the half, thanks to nifty running by Terrence Williams, who turned a 10-yard slant pattern into a 76-yard catch and run for a touchdown. But Detroit marched right back down the field to end the half with a Matt Prater field goal and a 17-7 lead.

But after adding another Prater three-pointer early in the third quarter the Lions’ offense stalled, unable to overcome defensive adjustments made by the Cowboys. Dallas closed to 20-14 on a short run by DeMarco Murray in the third quarter, and then edged still closer thanks to a 51-yard field goal by Dan Bailey early in the fourth. When Bailey’s kickoff was returned only to the Detroit 5 yard line, all of the momentum seemed to be flowing in the Cowboys’ direction.

But on 2nd and 12 Stafford connected with Corey Fuller over the middle for 21 yards; and three plays later the Detroit QB converted a 3rd and 8 by finding Calvin Johnson for a 19-yard pickup. Then, just when it appeared that the Lions might be mounting a drive that would earn them their first playoff win since 1991, the officiating crew took center stage.

On 3rd and 1 from the Dallas 46, Stafford dropped back, looked to his left, and lofted a short pass in the direction of Brandon Pettigrew. The tight end was defended by Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who had his back to the line of scrimmage and the ball headed his way. Hitchens first grabbed Pettigrew’s shoulder then blocked him from the ball, which ultimately bounced off the linebacker’s back. Since he never saw the ball Hitchens was obviously making no attempt to play it, and to the surprise of no one a yellow flag flew. At that moment the only issue in doubt was whether the call would be defensive holding or pass interference. Either way, Detroit was about to get a new set of downs.

Referee Pete Morelli quickly ended the suspense, announcing a pass interference penalty against Dallas. Then before the ball could be spotted at the point of the foul, Morelli and his crew changed course. To the delight of the Dallas fans crowded into AT&T Stadium the referee announced that there was no penalty on the play.

In the Fox Sports broadcast booth current analyst and former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman set aside any loyalty to his former team and expressed his incredulity at the sudden non-call. The NFL’s former vice president of officiating Mike Periera, now serving as a rules analyst for Fox Sports, joined Aikman in stating the obvious, that the original penalty call was correct. Twitter began to light up with comments ranging from shock to outrage. Former players Kurt Warner and Warren Sapp were joined by the likes of actor Samuel L. Jackson and author George R.R. Martin, as well as thousands of ordinary fans, in decrying the blown call. What no one watching on television saw was Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant coming onto the field before the call was reversed to argue with an official. Bryant wasn’t wearing a helmet as the rules require, which should have led to an immediate call of unsportsmanlike conduct.

With more than eight minutes remaining in the game it can’t be said that the collective brain freeze by the officials working the game definitively changed the final outcome. If the interference penalty had stood, or the unsportsmanlike conduct call had been made, perhaps Detroit would have driven on into the end zone. Or perhaps Stafford’s next pass would have been picked off and returned for a Dallas touchdown. We don’t know what might have happened, just what did. We know is that no Dallas player bit at a Detroit effort to draw someone offside on 4th and 1. We know that after Sam Martin shanked a punt only 10 yards; Tony Romo led the Cowboys on an 11-play drive that gave Dallas its first and only lead of the game. We know that Dallas plays Green Bay this weekend, and that Detroit’s season is over.

In the aftermath of this debacle Dean Blandino, the league’s current head of officiating, acknowledged that calls should have gone against both Hitchens and Bryant. But with the scoreboard clock showing all zeros, that statement meant little. The usual conspiracy theories bubbled to the surface, while in Detroit unhappy fans invested money that might have gone to playoff tickets on billboards that sprouted all around the city with pictures of a referee signaling pass interference and the slogan “Detroit Lyin.”

This isn’t the first playoff game to be tainted by officiating ineptitude. There are plenty of St. Louis Cardinals fans who know that their team had the 1985 World Series won, until umpire Don Denkinger badly missed a call at first base in the bottom of the 9th of Game Six. But that was at a time when replay was unheard of in any sport. In the decades since the NFL has led the way in using video replay to make sure that the officiating decision on the field is the right one. Allowing the kind of egregious error that took place on Sunday to be immediately corrected, especially during the playoffs, is the obvious and overdue next step. One that would place the spotlight back on the game and its players, and away from the crew in the black and white striped shirts.

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