Forty seconds elapsed between the moment back judge Lee Dyer called defensive pass interference on linebacker Anthony Hitchens and the moment referee Lee Morelli picked up the flag in Sunday’s Cowboys-Lions playoff game.
During those 40 seconds, Morelli announced the penalty, FOX showed four replays from four different angles, and the NFL world concluded that it was a clear penalty.
Then Morelli overturned the call without explanation, creating mass confusion and inviting numerous conspiracy theories.
The Cowboys went on to win 24-20. The call didn’t decide the game outright, but it played a part in the result.
Now that we have a good idea of exactly what happened, two things are clear: 1) the refs got the call wrong, and 2) the critical mistake wasn’t getting the call wrong, it was announcing the penalty before ultimately deciding to pick up the flag.
Here’s what happened in those 40 second, in the simplest terms possible.
1. On 3rd and 1 from the 46-yard line, the Lions threw a pass to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The defender, Anthony Hitchens, had his hands on Pettigrew when the ball was thrown:
2. The back judge, Lee Dyer, threw a flag for pass interference. It’s important to note that Dyer was standing at the 15-yard line in the middle of the field:
Also note that the official closest to the play (the side judge standing on the sideline) doesn’t call a penalty. He signals incomplete, and the flag stays in his pocket:
Morelli announced the penalty to the crowd 20 seconds after the flag was thrown. There was not a full discussion with his fellow officials before he made the announcement, he said after the game.
Twenty seconds later — after the penalty had been announced — the flag was overturned when another official convinced the rest of the crew that it wasn’t a penalty.
3. The official who overturns the call is this guy, head linesman Jerry Bergman. He’s standing on the line of scrimmage on the sideline closest to the play:
Here he is when the pass is in the air, about 15 yards from the play, looking right down the sideline:
Now, according to the explanation that Morelli released after the game, the play was overturned because Bergman had a better view than Dyer and felt that Hitchens didn’t commit pass interference. It’s probably true that he had a better view. As you can see above, both guys were around 15 yards away from the play, but Bergman may have had a better angle because he was looking directly down the sideline.
Better angle or not, Bergman was able to convince Dyer that he was wrong to throw the flag.
Football officiating expert Mark Schultz notes that because of how officiating mechanics work, Dyer actually had to agree to pick up the flag for the call to be overturned. Here’s how Schultz describes how it works when an official has a call questioned by another official:
If an official thinks another official threw his flag in error, he lets the play continue, and once the ball is dead he approaches the calling official and asks him what he saw. The calling official tells his partners what he has. He’ll then ask his crew-mates what they saw — knowing that if his partners are questioning his call they have a very good reason to do so. Once the calling official has the information from his partners it is up to him to either pick up the flag or let the call stand.
If Dyer was 100% sure it was pass interference, the play would have stood, regardless of what the other refs thought. Ultimately he was convinced that he was wrong.
Morelli wasn’t in a position to exert his influence. He told the pool reporter after the game, “It’s not my responsibility. I’m a hundred miles away.”
Another factor at work here is that these officials haven’t worked together all year. During the regular season, officials work with the same guys every week. They’re familiar with each other. During the playoffs, though, the NFL forms all-star teams of officials, meaning these guys haven’t worked together all year and aren’t familiar with each other. As Peter King notes, that played a part in all of this:
This play changed my mind about the mixed crews in the postseason. Namely, there shouldn’t be mixed crews. Crews work together all season to form a chemistry. And the biggest game of the year, officials who are working together for the first time (in most cases) have to make season-deciding calls like this one. It’s just not a smart way to do business in the biggest games.
If the penalty stood, the Lions would have had 1st and 10 on the Dallas 30-yard line with eight minutes to go and a 20-17 lead. According to Brian Burke, they would have had a 79.4% chance to win the game.
When the penalty was picked up, the Lions had 4th and 1 on the 46-yard line with a 67.2% chance to win the game. Detroit then made the conservative decision to punt on 4th down and it backfired. Their punter shanked it, Dallas took over with great field position, and Detroit lost the game 24-20.
Refs miss calls all the time. With how confusing and inconsistent pass interference is called in the NFL, there wouldn’t have been anywhere near this level of outrage if the refs had picked up the flag right away. Instead, Bergman didn’t convince the crew to overturn the call until after Morelli declared it a penalty, and since there was no explanation, everyone understandably freaked out.
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