Football games aren’t determined by a single whistle, or a single ruling by an official. That doesn’t happen, and it wasn’t about to start Sunday with some wild grassy knoll style conspiracy to help the Dallas Cowboys advance past the Detroit Lions.
The events of Sunday at the 8:25 mark in the fourth quarter of that game have happened before, and they’ll be repeated in some form again.
You know the details well by now, as they’ve been burned into your memory by repeated GIF and replay viewing. To recap: On a 3rd-and-1 from the Cowboys’ 46-yard line Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford lobbed a pass to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. He was linebacker Anthony Hitchens’ defensive assignment.
As the ball came down Hitchens was facing Pettigrew directly after tugging on his jersey and then making contact with his shoulder. At the very least, defensive holding should have been called, and there was a case to be made for pass interference too.
— Don Van Natta Jr. (@DVNJr) January 5, 2015
Initially the officials agreed with the latter call, and head referee Pete Morelli announced a pass interference penalty. Then seconds later an odd phenomenon occurred: time was reversed. Even after the penalty was officially announced the flag was still picked up. Morelli later said the call was originally made by back judge Lee Dyer, and he was overruled by Jerry Bergman, the head linesman closer to the play.
— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) January 5, 2015
Immediately the conspiracy theorists emerged from whatever cave they were inhabiting, and unleashed their fury. Of course the NFL wants its darling Dallas Cowboys to advance deep into the playoffs, we were told. It’s all about money and greedy billionaire goons, even though prior to this year the Cowboys missed the playoffs in four straight seasons.
There was plenty of incompetence on this play, and now over 24 hours later plenty of embarrassment after vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said he would have preferred the crew stuck with their original call. He also noted the missed holding infraction, which was a point of emphasis this season and was called a record 347 times.
But there was no conspiracy. No, just an abundance of blundering errors.
There was no conspiracy because one play later the Lions still had a chance to gain the single yard they required. Instead of showing some bravery, Lions head coach Jim Caldwell only attempted to draw Dallas offside and then punted.
There was no conspiracy because even after Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo connected with wide receiver Terrance Williams for a touchdown on the following drive, the Lions still had buckets of time. The clock read 2:32 when Matthew Stafford took possession on his own 20-yard line with two timeouts available (three including the two-minute warning).
Two plays later he fumbled after a sack. But since defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence still had some lingering holiday spirit, he gave the ball right back with a fumble of his own.
There was no conspiracy because Stafford was given a second chance, and the result was the same. Lawrence forced a fumble further down the field, ending the game this time.
There was no conspiracy because a once dominant Lions defense allowed a game-winning drive that lasted 11 plays and chewed up over five minutes of game clock.
Offensively the Lions had 66 other plays to change the outcome of their season, and defensively there were 58 plays they had to stop. There was no shortage of opportunity to change the final score.
Officiating football requires sifting through constant chaos to make judgement calls, and do so rapidly. That’s not an excuse, or a reason why officials shouldn’t be held accountable when their professional judgement fails at the highest level.
But when those failures happen they’re also not a crutch or conspiracy. One mistake doesn’t derail an entire game.