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Lions-Cowboys referee’s explanation for picking up flag: ‘Face-guarding is not a foul’

Referee Pete Morelli, shown during a Lions-Vikings game in December. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)
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Just about everyone agrees: The play of Sunday’s Lions-Cowboys game occurred when officials picked up a flag they had thrown against Dallas for pass interference. That gave Detroit a fourth down instead of a crucial first down late in the postseason contest, and after a poor punt, the Cowboys drove for the game-winning score.

Related: Does the NFL have a referee controversy?

The incident caused a furor on the Internet. At the time, conspiracy theorists were bolstered in their assertions by the fact that the officials never really explained to the viewing public why they had overturned their own call. Here is the play in question, in which Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens covered Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew:

A couple of hours after the game ended, ESPN’s Todd Archer, acting as a pool reporter, was able to ask referee Pete Morelli about the non-call. Morelli explained that his crew decided that there was not enough contact to justify a pass interference call, and that the “face-guarding” on the play is not illegal in the NFL.

Here is a transcript of their discussion:

Todd Archer: Can you talk about the decision to overturn the call and why you overturned the call?
Pete Morelli: The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference. We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference. He thought it was face-guarding.
Archer: Which official?
Morelli: The head linesman.
Archer: What did you see?
Morelli: It’s not my responsibility. I’m a hundred miles away.
Archer: Face-guarding is not a foul?
Morelli: Face-guarding is not a foul. It is a penalty in college but not in professional football.
Archer: What is the process you go through after you announce the call? Should you have waited before you announced the call?
Morelli: Probably, yes. The information came and then the officials got together a little bit later, after it was given to me, the first information. It would have probably been smoother if we got together.
Archer: Do you remember this type of player happening before?
Morelli: No, not particularly.
Archer: So one more time on who the person was that had a better view?
Morelli: The better view was from the head linesman.

Morelli is incorrect about at least one thing: Face-guarding (i.e., a defender facing the player he is covering, rather than looking at the ball) is not illegal at the NCAA level. Rather, college football has the same penalty threshold as the pros — face-guarding is legal, as long as there is no contact.

Those who want to take issue with the decision to pick up the flag can point out the NFL rule book’s explanation of what constitutes pass interference. The rules list six “actions that constitute defensive pass interference.” Here is the first one:

“(a) Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver’s opportunity to make the catch.”

It’s impossible to say that there was no contact. Pettigrew’s left hand is obviously blocked by Hitchens’s body as the tight end reaches for what appears to be a catchable pass (another situation that could cause a PI penalty to be waved off).

Rather, the head linesman (Jerry Berger) decided that “the contact was minimal.” That’s the kind of judgment call — especially one that contradicts, after a flag has been thrown, another official’s decision on the play — that will have Lions fans howling well into the offseason.

George R.R. Martin is not a Lions fan. Instead, he is the author of the books that form the basis of the “Game of Thrones” series. Plus, he’s a Jets fan, and as someone who’s experienced his share of NFL torment, he had a strong opinion about Sunday’s events, which he shared on his blog:

If I was a Detroit Lions fan, I’d be screaming for referee blood about that.
Picking up that flag on a FLAGRANT pass interference by Dallas in the fourth quarter was the worse call… or non-call… the NFL has seen since… well… since the non-call on the botched field goal attempt in the Giants/ 49ers playoff game ages ago.
Shocking. Really shocking.
The Lions could still have won the game. They did lots to blow it afterward, from penalties of their own (none as flagrant, none picked up) to blown coverages to a shanked punt and a fumble. But still… Detroit could well have locked up the victory on that drive, the play was textbook pass interference, the penalty needed to stand. The defender mugged the tight end.
One for the books.