The officials screwed up in Sunday's Detroit-Dallas game. There is still overwhelming disagreement about how badly they botched a critical fourth-quarter decision and how the call should've been made, but both referee Pete Morelli and NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino have admitted that mistakes were made.
"Mechanically, it could have been handled much better," Blandino said Monday during an appearance on NBC Sports Radio.
Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens was initially flagged for pass interference on Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew, a call that would have given the Lions a critical first down as they tried to preserve a fourth-quarter lead. Seconds after Morelli announced that penalty, however, he reversed course and said, "There is no foul for pass interference. The defender did not make contact."
No further explanation was given until a couple of hours after the game, when Morelli was interviewed by pool reporter Todd Archer. According to Morelli, back judge Lee Dyer threw the initial flag, head linesman Jerry Bergman essentially overturned it ... and Morelli himself perhaps made the worst blunder of all by announcing an automatic first down for Detroit before talking with his makeshift crew.
"Probably, yes," Morelli said, when asked if he should have waited longer before making the penalty announcement. "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."
Blandino confirmed Monday that the situation was poorly handled: "I think we don't want to make an announcement that there's a penalty, start to put the football down, then make another announcement that we're picking up the flag." He also stated that while the pass interference call could have gone either way -- "It was a judgment call ... it was close" -- Hitchens should have been flagged for defensive holding.
That call would not have cost the Cowboys as much yardage, but it would have given Detroit an automatic first down.
"That's holding. There's no two ways about it," Blandino told Mike Florio. "That's a jersey grab, a point of emphasis. That's a jersey grab that they could have been called. A jersey grab like that is defensive holding. ... Had somebody seen it, then they should have called it, but it obviously wasn't recognized on the field."
Adding to the utter chaos surrounding the play, there were at least two other possible infractions: Pettigrew appeared to grab Hitchens' face mask at one point, then Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant later ran onto the field to argue the flag.
Blandino admitted he "didn't see much" with regard to a facemask foul: "There is some contact with the mask. He didn't grab it or pull and twist or turn the mask. I thought that was minimal contact. If you take the hold out of this, I think you can take that out of the equation."
As for Bryant's action, Blandino confirmed that the officials have "discretion" in those cases; Bryant being without a helmet was a non-factor since he was not involved in the play. Morelli did not address the lack of a call on Bryant during his interview Sunday night.
"It's not an automatic penalty," Blandino said. "The helmet removal only applies to a player who is in the game and takes his helmet off to confront an official or opponent or some kind of demonstration. They have discretion. Is he confronting me? Is he confronting an opponent?
"Certainly, I would have supported a call had it been made, but in the heat of the moment, they gave the sideline some leeway."
So, there you have the official explanation from the league on what occurred Sunday. Will anyone buy it?
Getting from point A to point B will be a tough sell, mainly because of how egregious Morelli's handling of the play was. Morelli's rush to make a call is even more astounding when it is taken into account that he was working with an unfamiliar roster of officials. Because the NFL currently rewards individual officials with playoff assignments, there were five separate regular-season crews represented at Sunday's Detroit-Dallas game. Dyer, who tossed the flag on Anthony Hitchens, spent the year on Craig Wrolstad's crew; Bergman worked with Walt Coleman.
How the league assigns its playoff games has changed several times in just the last dozen years or so. Under former head of officiating (and current FOX analyst) Mike Pereira, the league switched from the so-called "all-star crews" for the playoffs to rewarding full officiating teams. The current system went back into place with the 2012 collective bargaining agreement.
Presently, all assignments are handed out individually, with minimal consideration given to maintaining familiarity.
"I don't think that was ultimately the factor that led to that situation happening," Blandino said. "You have four officials who have worked together. ... We really can't do anything until after the 2015 season [when the current officials' CBA expires], but I think there's pro and cons to both [the individual- and crew-based systems]."
Suffice it to say, the NFL again may reassess several elements in light of what went down on wild-card weekend. Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Monday, for example, that he would like to see replay used on key plays like the Pettigrew-Hitchens call. And more arguments for full-time NFL officials are likely to be lobbied now, too -- Morelli is a high-school principal when he isn't calling NFL games.
Then there is the issue of Blandino having spent a night this past summer on Jerry Jones' "party bus". TMZ photographed Blandino stepping off the bus, and CBS' Jason La Canfora reported in August that some NFL executives were "irate" at the possible conflict of interest.
The Blandino-Jones link caught fire Sunday night following the Cowboys' win, with some using it as evidence that the fix was in on the picked-up flag.
Not surprisingly, Blandino deflected that claim.
"That's something that it happened and one has nothing to do with the other," Blandino said. "I understand why there's [that] perception. ... I've been through that and my personal growth and what I need to do. It had nothing to do with how the game was officiated."
Blandino even needing to address such a topic in the midst of the playoffs is problematic for the league. Almost as problematic as chalking up a confounding sequence of events during a wild-card game to the officials' error.
These are not the conversations NFL fans should be having following any games, let alone thrilling, nail-biting postseason contests.
Whether you buy the Morelli and Blandino explanations or not, and no matter if you are part of the crowd claiming a pro-Cowboys conspiracy, everyone involved with the league ought to be in agreement that how the reversed call played out is nowhere near acceptable.