The refereeing in the Cowboys-Lions game

The offensive pass interference non-call in the Cowboys-Lions game is causing much online angst, as many people blame the incident for the Lions’ loss.
First off, we have to gain better perspective. The ultimate bad outcome in a game is where the wrong call (or no call) decides a game on a point-scoring play. This was not a point-scoring play. If the call had been confirmed, the Lions would only have gained a first down. A first down is not points on the board. The Lions might have scored, they might not. Hell, they might have thrown an INT. So claiming that this call decided the game is nonsense.
Secondly, as you can see from the video review, a proper call might well have been offensive pass interference. The Lions player appears to grab the Cowboy player’s facemask earlier in the play. To the people demanding replay for pass interference calls, be careful what you wish for.
Thirdly, this media firestorm would not have occurred if the Lions had scored more points in the second half of the game. They could not score points because the Cowboys defense played better than their offense. When a team resorts to complaining about a single call as being responsible for their defeat, you know you are dealing with a situation where they failed to win the game by on-field play. (I remember after the Giants beat the Patriots in Superbowl XLII, Bill Belichick waved off questions about the David Tyree helmet catch by pointing out that the Patriots were unlikely to win any Superbowl if they only scored 14 points).
Smart players and coaches often point out that single calls are a side issue. Other less smart folks play the “woe is us” card.
Fourthly, the major contributor to issues like this is the NFL rule book, which is hilariously complicated, and continually becomes more complicated. Every year some more subtle caveats and wrinkles are added to the rules, and the job of officiating becomes more and more complex. At the same time, the clamor is for more and more calls to be reviewable, usually after a contentious incident like the Cowboys-Lions incident.
The NFL and its consumers cannot have it both ways. Either the referees are in charge, in which case give them a simpler rule book and rely on them, or the referees are not in charge, in which case let’s make every call on the field of play subject to review. (I’m joking, this latter scenario will never occur, because it would result in games lasting 4+ hours, which the TV networks will not support).
Fifthly – How come the NFL, the most valuable sports league in the world in terms of team values, TV rights and other financial measures, does not have full-time on-field officials? This is crazy. The officials are all doing this work as an adjunct to their day jobs. Think about that for a moment and you will realize that they are being asked to get everything right 100% of the time off of a very complex rule book in front of hundreds of millions of people, in their spare time? How many things are fundamentally wrong with that picture?
Firing officials is often proposed as a sanction for bad calls. Left unexplained is how continual churn of officiating crews is going to improve overall quality of officiating. If you accept that the NFL is the most challenging environment in which to get officiating right (and the poor performance of the replacement officials in the 2012 lockout tends to suggest that), then forced ranking and firing of the bottom tier of officials might make some teams feel better, but it is unlikely to improve the levels of officiating. You have to look at it from the perspective of an official. Why should they volunteer for a part-time job, working in a high-pressure public environment, from which they can potentially be fired for one bad call?
Support for that is coming from within the football commentariat. A contributory factor being cited for Sunday’s issue is that the match referee did not have his normal officiating crew – he was working with a crew assembled just for this playoff game.
(By the way, the NFL has, just like the individual teams and their treatment of the cheerleaders, tried to nickel-and-dime the officials on several different levels, including compensation if the referees are full-time employees. This was one of the issues that led to the 2012 lockout and the replacement officials fiasco. )
My conclusion is that there is a lot of air being moved over this issue, but a lot of the air is carrying hyperbole and BS. The underlying issues are the over-complex NFL rule book, the desire to get every call right that continually expands the reviewable calls list, thus making games even longer, and the chiseling approach of the NFL to referees, whereby they seem to be trying to get high quality officiating on the cheap. In most areas of life, you get what you pay for (or not).


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