NFL refs lose face

Ray Bressette

With the NFL playoffs winding down and the Super Bowl just two weeks away, the NFL has seemingly gained more attention than normal at this point in the season.

IMG_20140402_205043_855 (1)
Ray Bressette

Instead of concentrating on the final four teams that are still alive in the hunt for the world championship, the league is surrounded by the dark cloud of controversial officiating by the referees through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

There have been controversial calls and decisions made by NFL officials nearly every week of the season. But when the playoffs roll around, the league is supposedly giving the highest level of officiating for the best teams, in the biggest games. Yet from week one of the playoffs, the league has shown us that with all the gray-area calls and controversy, a change in the process of reviewing referee decisions is needed.

The conflict first arose when the Detroit Lions traveled to Dallas to kickoff against the Cowboys in the wildcard round of the playoffs. The Lions jumped out to a quick 17-7 lead, and despite a Dallas comeback in the second half to cut Detroit’s lead to 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter, the Lions were marching down the field into Cowboys territory to seemingly put the game away. This is when Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens was flagged for a penalty. After the call was announced, however, the referees huddled and decided to overturn the announced penalty, which is non-reviewable in the NFL, forcing the Lions to give the ball to the Cowboys, which led to the game-winning touchdown for Dallas.

Lions players and coaches were very vocal after the game, with Lions head coach Jim Caldwell telling the press that all plays in the NFL should be reviewable in the playoffs.

“I don’t think in this day and age, modern times, where we have technology that can take out the human factor in certain key situations, in big games, that we should use technology to do so,” Caldwell said. “Kind of set the record straight and take the human error out of it. So perhaps, from this endeavor, we’ll find a way to maybe improve that portion of the game.”

For what it’s worth, the NFL came out the following days admitting there were at least three calls missed against Dallas that in hindsight could  have changed the outcome of the game.      

Cowboys fans and players were cheering at the missed calls by the officials, but affection for the referees did not last long. The following week, the Cowboys traveled to Lambeau field to take on the Green Bay Packers.

Faced with a fourth and two situation, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant appeared to leap for a 31-yard catch at the Packers’ one-yard line, which would have given the Cowboys a chance to run the clock down and punch in a game-winning touchdown.      However, after further review of the play, the officials decided that although Bryant caught the ball and took three steps toward the end zone, his catch was deemed a ‘non-football move,’ which gave the ball to the Packers to essentially end the game.

Both Lions and Packers fans may rejoice at the fact that Dallas was eliminated from the playoffs by the call, and the cover of the New York Post the following day had a picture of Bryant’s non-catch with the word “Justice” in capital letters across the page. But if we are true fans, we should never be rejoicing at an NFL game being decided by the call of a referee.

The problem is not that the officials are missing calls. USA Today reported in October 2014 that NFL referees are flagging players at an increasing rate, with pass interference up 120 percent and illegal contact calls up 285 percent in the 2013 season. The NFL should take a tip out of the NBA and NHL’s playbook and have higher officials at league headquarters reviewing major decisions, instead of the referees reviewing their own original calls on the field.

We will see what decisions the NFL makes in the offseason regarding any changes to officiating and reviewing policies. For now, we’ll see what happens when the Packers travel to Seattle with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, in a town where Packers fans are all too familiar with referee controversy.