Nice to see the NFL is nothing if not consistent. The season began with a referee perception problem, and the first weekend of the playoffs is just more of the same. The “Phantom Flag” in Dallas has left a tainted taste in everyone’s mouth, soiled an entertaining postseason game, and once again the league is left looking like a guy who’s been stuck on hold for hours with customer service. Lost, and without answers.
In a season where pass interference and defensive holding are more muddled and ambiguous than ever, it’s only appropriate the nation will be transfixed all week on another official’s bizarre interpretation. Last week a caller asked me how the murky passing rules would affect the playoffs. I said, “It just feels like we’re headed for a game being decided on a controversial flag, it’s gonna end a team’s season, and we’ll all be sick about it.” I wish I had been wrong.
But the signs were there all year. Can you ever remember a year fraught with so many debatable flags on the same type of play? Quarterback drops back to pass, throws it up, there’s some contact coming off the line. There’s a little more contact between the corner and receiver while the ball is in the air. The pass falls incomplete, and we’re all paralyzed for fifteen seconds waiting on the referee’s interpretation. Then spin the Ed Hochuli wheel of misfortune! Defensive pass interference? Offensive pass interference? Defensive holding? Incidental contact? Your guess was as good as theirs. When Mike Carey and Mike Peirera, who were employed for years to make these exact decisions, regularly have no idea, it’s a problem.
Let’s be careful not to oversimplify a three-hour game down to one moment of chaos in Dallas. Detroit lacked the same explosive play-making in the second half that had built a 14-point lead in the first. The Lions offensive line crumpled on the final drive, giving Matthew Stafford no time. Jim Caldwell didn’t want to roll the dice on 4th and 1. Detroit shanked a punt, then couldn’t get a stop. The Cowboys became the aggressor when it mattered most, the Lions became the wallflower.
But the Phantom Flag was an abomination, and will live in infamy. It was announced over the public address system by head referee Pete Morelli as defensive pass interference. Then astoundingly (and silently) reversed extremely late, without explanation to the fans or teams. This was the epicenter of a 4th quarter clash in a playoff game, and Morelli found it appropriate to flop a full 180 degrees on the call without so much as a burp into the mic. Back judge Lee Dyer initially called for pass interference, but head linesman Jerry Bergman convinced the crew the contact was minimal, and they decided it was face guarding, which is legal. Debatable change, but at the very least don’t the Lions and everyone in the state of Michigan deserve that insight before the next play?
Lions coach Jim Cladwell said postgame the explanation he got was “not good enough, I’m gonna leave it at that.” Tight end Brandon Pettigrew said he didn’t even get a clarification on the field from the refs. And while Jerry Jones and Governor Chris Christie were exchanging awkward old guy high-fives with nacho breath in the suite, I wonder how the Ford family was reacting to that gut punch without explanation. Guess there’s only enough owner cams for Jerry.
The night’s embarrassment is only made more perfect by the August video that the league’s head of officiating, Dean Blandino, was caught on camera acting like frat boy Zach Efron in “Neighbors” on the Cowboys party bus. Even though league executives were reportedly upset, Blandino was never forced to respond by the NFL. Bury the important stuff! (A Roger Goodell signature.) And Jerry Jones said he didn’t “have a problem with it at all. I don’t deem in inappropriate. Our officiating is doing a good job.” Well, that’s certainly debatable.
Jerry’s son Stephen Jones, who was on the bus with Blandino, had an even better response. When asked about it a few days following the release of the video Stephen said, “You can ask me about football. Are you serious? Serious?” When questioned further, he turned and walked away. Boy, you’d hate for owners to understand the perspective of the fan.
It’s delusional to think Morelli’s crew thought about Blandino’s night of raging on the Cowboys bus five months ago in the middle of a game, and picked up the flag to help nudge Dallas to a win. But the concept of impartiality, fairness, transparency, and credibility are all vital to the paying public that care about this game. Whether it’s the refs on the field, the head of officiating playing beer pong with owners, or the keepers of the game themselves, it would be nice if that was respected.
Or else maybe we should just turn and walk away too.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm across the ever expanding universe of CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10″ opining on Zubaz pants, Tecmo Bowl and Andre Reed’s HOF credentials. D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and immediately started looking for ways to make a sports radio show more like a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and become one with the Facebook page experience. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY – a sleepy town existing somewhere between the suburbs and the sticks.