Perhaps it was only natural that the NFL’s postseason would begin the same way its regular season did, with a bit of controversy that the league hopes will go away.
After a season in which the NFL took a big hit over its ham-handed handling of domestic violence incidents, this time, officiating crews were getting the rotten headlines. On Saturday, there was crew chief Ed Hochuli referring to someone by the nickname “Jungle Boy” on a hot mic. That quickly was explained away, but then, on Sunday night, the league’s credibility and transparency was damaged again with the whole “pay no attention to that flag on the field; there was no pass interference” decision.
The non-call came up at a critical moment in the fourth quarter of the wild-card game between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, when after flagging Andrew Hitchens for pass interference on Brandon Pettigrew, Pete Morelli picked up the flag after a lengthy period of time and stuffed it back in his pocket. His only explanation to the TV audience was that there was no call.
At the time, the Lions were hanging onto a 20-17 lead and, while the non-call didn’t change the outcome of the game, it was a major topic of conversation after the Cowboys’ 24-20 victory.
Afterward, there wasn’t really a convincing explanation by Morelli. Here’s the transcript (via Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News) pool reporter Todd Archer’s interview with Morelli:
Archer: Can you talk about the decision to overturn the call and why you overturned the call.
Morelli: The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference. We got other information 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 probably been smoother if we got together.
Archer: Do you remember this type of (play) happening before?
Morelli: No, not particularly.
Archer: So one more time on who the person was that had the better view?
Morelli: The better view was from the head linesman.
Mike Pereira, the league’s former head of officiating and now a Fox broadcaster, said the call was correctly called. “I’ll tell you, I watch a lot of football, see a lot of plays and you can’t pick that flag up. … That’s pass interference. It was correctly called on the field.”
Nor did the controversy die in a flurry of images of Jerry Jones, Chris Christie and the Cowboys celebrating.
Suddenly, everyone remembered that a man that TMZ said was Dean Blandino, the league’s vice-president of officiating, was entertained on Jones’ luxurious bus during training camp.
But the conspiracy theories are beside the point really. The bigger issue is that the NFL treats officiating like it’s the least important thing it does, when it should among the top issues on Roger Goodell’s list. (Just look at how the league’s crisis over replacement refs a couple of years ago.) Crews are split up for the playoffs in an attempt to create “all-star” crews at the worst possible time. The playoffs deserve better than that — especially if the league is hellbent on expanding them.
“The Cowboys,” Pereira concluded, “caught a huge, huge break.”