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NFL admits mistake in Lions-Packers game, as outrage over officiating grows

Lions defensive end Trey Flowers (left) was flagged for two key penalties that helped contribute to the Packers' victory Monday night. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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While renewed outrage about NFL officiating filled the airwaves and social media, the league acknowledged Tuesday that a key penalty called against the Detroit Lions in their nationally televised loss Monday night at Green Bay was wrong.

Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said that one of two illegal-hands-to-the-face penalties called against Lions defensive lineman Trey Flowers was incorrect.

“There was one that was clear that we support,” Vincent said at an NFL owners’ meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “And there was another that when you look at it, when you review the play, it’s not something that you want to see called, in particular on the pass rush. … The foul wasn’t there.”

Vincent said he would discuss the matter with Lions officials during the regularly scheduled owners’ meeting, which began Tuesday and runs through Wednesday.

This NFL season has been, in significant part, about officiating, as coaches and other observers have been critical of the application of the new system making pass interference reviewable by instant replay. That system was ratified by owners of the 32 teams in March after a blatant pass interference penalty by the Los Angeles Rams went uncalled in last season’s NFC championship game in January in New Orleans, allowing the Rams rather than the Saints to advance to the Super Bowl.

The latest venting came as the owners gathered for their meeting. The Packers beat the Lions, 23-22, Monday night at Lambeau Field on a field goal as time expired, with Green Bay’s winning drive extended by the penalty called on Flowers. It could not be reversed on replay under NFL officiating rules, although viewers of the ESPN broadcast could see replays showing that Flowers did not put his hands into the face of the Green Bay offensive lineman who was blocking him.

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The league supported an earlier hands-to-the-face penalty called Monday night against Flowers. There also was a possible pass interference penalty against the Packers that went uncalled and was not challenged by the Lions.

“The Lions are going to feel like they played better than the Packers tonight and the officials took this one away,” ESPN analyst Booger McFarland, a former NFL defensive lineman, said as he railed against the missed calls.

Lions players complained about the officiating in comments to reporters in the postgame locker room, although quarterback Matthew Stafford and Coach Matt Patricia took the calls relatively in stride during their postgame news conferences.

“We just go out there and play,” Stafford said. “We’re not playing the officials. We’re playing the Packers. The calls are going to go your way or go against you.”

Patricia said of the Lions’ penalties, “We just can’t have them.”

T.J. Lang, the former Lions and Packers guard, was watching the game and tweeted, “In my 11 years involved with the NFL, I’ve never seen worse officiating than this year and it’s not even close.”

Lions safety Tracy Walker also was called for an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Packers wide receiver Geronimo Allison. The contact appeared to come while Walker was attempting to make a play on the ball without intending to hit Allison, who left the game with a chest injury and a possible concussion. Walker complained about the call to reporters later, and McFarland was critical of it during the ESPN broadcast.

However, referee Clete Blakeman told a pool reporter after the game that intent is not a factor in such a call and it “is a strict liability for a defensive player” to avoid hitting in the head a receiver who is in the process of making a catch. Such hits are prohibited under the NFL’s defenseless-player safety rules. Blakeman also said that the umpire on Monday’s officiating crew called both penalties on Flowers and felt there was “prolonged” contact by Flowers to the head or neck of his blocker.

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Although the season has been filled with officiating miscues and uncertainty, no immediate action is expected to be taken at the owners’ meeting. Expanding the scope of instant replay to reverse judgment calls, such as those that went against Flowers, does not appear to be the immediate answer. Coaches regularly have complained about inconsistency in the interference-related replay rulings being made this season by Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating.

NFL leaders do not seem to be listening, however. According to several people familiar with the thinking of league leaders, the NFL believes that the new system, while imperfect, is working “okay” and the onus is on coaches to adjust after they pushed hard in March for the rule change. The new system was ratified by owners on a one-year basis, meaning it will be up for reconsideration following this season.

Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, took a wait-and-see approach Tuesday.

“I don’t think that we would give a summation on whether a rule that’s been in place for six weeks is working or not working,” McKay said in Fort Lauderdale. “Let’s let the season play out, just like the use-of-helmet [rule] last year. … It’s a brand-new rule, one that our coaches are getting accustomed to, one that our players and fans are getting accustomed to and one that the officials are getting accustomed to.”

McKay declined to say if the interference-related replay rulings are being made as intended.

“When the rule was put in place,” he said, “the emphasis … was, ‘We want to get the egregious ones and we want to get them overturned.’ … I’m not going to get into how it’s currently being done from New York because I think that’s something that we’re all better off doing — at least for us as a committee — we’re always better off doing at the end of the year. … This is the first time we’ve lived in the subjective world where we’re going to have a subjective review by an individual as opposed to objective. And we knew that would lead to disagreement.”

New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, among others, has in the past proposed making all calls and non-calls during a game subject to review by replay under the coaches’ challenge system. But that proposal never has generated sufficient support as owners and the competition committee expressed wariness, at least until the interference controversy over the Saints-Rams blunder, to make judgment calls by the on-field officials reviewable.

There have been renewed calls for the implementation of a “sky judge,” an official stationed in front of a monitor in the press box at each game who would assist the on-field crew by intervening on erroneous calls. But NFL leaders pointed out at the time that it would be difficult to find 17 qualified officials to fill such jobs and that such a setup could create varying standards for replay reversals from game to game.

“I’m concerned,” former NFL referee John Parry told The Washington Post last month. “I’m not sure what it is, but I know this: Fans don’t want excuses. They don’t want rationalization. They don’t want to hear how fast the game is and how tough the job is. Al and the officiating department need to dig down, and they all need to come together and get it right.”

This season, fans of other teams are feeling the pain of Saints fans, who still are not over the botched call that altered the outcome of the NFC title game. Even those who are personally unaffected know what they’re seeing and are mocking the league.

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