A flag flies. Dallas fans groan. Detroit fans rejoice.
Then the yellow cloth thrown for defensive pass interference is picked up by the game officials. No penalty is marked off.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell and quarterback Matthew Stafford are ticked. Game broadcasters are puzzled. Fans are befuddled.
And that one call/non-call becomes the focal point of wild-card weekend.
Unfortunately, NFL officiating crews have been in the spotlight far too often this season. The latest incident brings up two significant questions:
—Was there a lack of communication with a public that clamors for information — and deserves it?
—Why would the NFL use “all-star” crews in its most important games, virtually eliminating the cohesion that helps officials during the regular season?
Dean Blandino, the NFL’s officiating chief, has some answers. They’re not likely to placate many.
Blandino told The Associated Press on Monday that referee Pete Morelli erred in originally announcing an interference call on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens before discussing it with the back judge who made the call, and with other members of the crew. The head linesman, who was closer to the play, then “gave more information, and that from his perspective it was not enough contact (for pass interference) and that there was not enough contact that restricted the receiver (Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew).”
“The mechanics we would prefer are that the conversation occurs before the initial announcement,” Blandino said, “so there is one announcement and no confusion if a foul was committed or not.”
Morelli made a second announcement saying there would be no penalty. Blandino believes Fox TV viewers missed that call because, at the time Morelli was speaking, announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were talking to Fox officiating commentator and former NFL director of officials Mike Pereira.
“I don’t think there was any idea what was happening on the field, and the second announcement just got lost,” Blandino said.
Morelli’s announcement could be heard on an audio review of Fox’s broadcast, but the announcers also were discussing the play. So the viewing audience couldn’t be sure what happened, only that flag had been picked up.
Even more of an issue, though, is the process for selecting officials for postseason games.
As part of the labor agreement between the league and the officials’ union in 2012, the officials bargained for and received an individual-based assignment system. It will remain in effect until after next season, when Blandino believes it will be revisited.
The evaluation system has changed through the years. For many seasons, until 2004, full crews with the highest ratings for the regular season would earn playoff assignments. That changed to a hybrid system in ‘04 that allowed for eliminating lower-rated officials on some crews from working the playoffs.
Moving to the current “all-star” approach allows for officials rated highest at each position by supervisors to get the premium assignments. But it robs the crews working the critical January/February games of the continuity developed through a full preseason and regular season.
That seemed to hurt Morelli’s bunch Sunday; although four of the officials at the Detroit-Dallas wild-card game had worked together previously, none had been with Morelli in 2014.
All assignments are based on those performance charts, with the only requirement under the current CBA being that officials in their first two years in the league don’t get on-field work in the playoffs.
“I look at both systems and there are pros and cons to both systems,” Blandino said. “You want your best officials in the postseason; obviously you have to win as a team in the regular season to get into the postseason. I think the individual system has merit, but I can’t sit here and say having the full crew who worked together all season, there’s not a benefit there.
“Maybe there is a middle ground where we can get the benefits of the crew continuity and the highest-rated officials.”
Regardless, there will always be a clamor about officiating, no matter the sport. There will be Lions fans screaming why helmetless Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant wasn’t disciplined for being on the field yelling at officials to pick up the flag. Blandino said there is no automatic penalty given to a player not in the game who has his helmet off, and that officials used their “discretion” in escorting Bryant back to the sideline.
And there will be Dallas fans — or followers of any team — loudly supporting the officials. But only when the calls go their way.