NFL referee Pete Morelli has explained why a pivotal penalty flag against the Dallas Cowboys was overturned in their playoff win over the Detroit Lions.
There was widespread confusion and anger when what appeared to be a clear pass interference penalty on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter was reversed, even after Morelli announced it over the public address system.
No explanation was offered during the game, fueling the mystery.
After the game, Morelli said the penalty was overruled because a second official (who didn’t throw the flag) with a better view felt that there wasn’t enough contact to call a penalty. This official determined that Hitchens was face-guarding (which is not a penalty in the NFL), not interfering with Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
“The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference. We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference,” he told the pool reporter after the game. “He thought it was face-guarding.”
He asked what he saw on the play, Morelli said, “It’s not my responsibility. I’m a hundred miles away.”
Here’s the play:
Morelli said that this second official, the heads linesman, had a better view of the play than the back judge.
Morelli also acknowledged that he messed up by making the penalty announcement before consulting with the other officials:
Reporter: 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 have probably been smoother if we got together.
Reporter: Do you remember this type of play happening before?
Morelli: No, not particularly.
The critical error here was announcing the penalty to the crowd and then abruptly reversing it without explanation. Fox’s Mike Pereira said he couldn’t remember a time where a flag was picked up so long after it was thrown. If the officials had huddled up and talked about it before making an announcement, it would have been more palatable. Instead, there was mass confusion.
The broader issue is that officiating experts agree that it was a clear penalty on Dallas. Hitchens has his hands on Pettigrew when the ball is in the air. At the very least, Morelli’s team got the call wrong.
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