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Sean Lee and The Replacement Referees: Protecting the Head and Saving Face

If there’s one point I’ve harped on time and time again with the Dallas Cowboys, it’s penalties. Too often, these discipline-related mistakes have stalled comebacks, extended opponents’ drives, and had a big impact on the Cowboys’ chances for success.

Yet, despite this past Sunday’s miserable showing against the Seahawks, getting flagged was not a big issue for Dallas. Yes, Seattle’s vaunted 12th man caused a false start here or there, and an unfortunate facemask call took away a much needed sack, but by-and-large penalties did not change this game. That is, except for one.

In the fourth quarter, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson scrambled down the left sideline to move the team out of Seattle territory, with Sean Lee in hot pursuit. As Wilson was being chased down, an unseen Golden Tate came out of nowhere to deliver a crushing block to Lee, sending him hard to the turf. Meanwhile, fellow Dallas inside linebacker Bruce Carter pushed Wilson out of bounds to end the play. There was an audible gasp in the stadium at the punishing blow from Tate, who preened and gesticulated after the play. Lee, meanwhile, required medical attention on the field from the Cowboys’ training staff.

You can see the play after the jump:

The nearest referee quickly threw a flag. The Dallas faithful thought that certainly Tate would be flagged for unnecessary roughness, erasing Russell’s gain and sending the Seahawks back into the far reaches of their own territory, a ways away from a first down. Seattle was likely to be punting shortly. With nearly thirteen minutes left in the game and hopefully good field position, the Cowboys would have enough time to make up the thirteen-point deficit and mount a comeback.

Instead, after some hemming and hawing, the referee announced that there was, in fact, a foul for unnecessary roughness on the play. The penalty, however, was on on Bruce Carter, rather than Golden Tate, for his escorting Russell Wilson out of bounds. The outrage was immediate. Instead of pushing the Seahawks back, the officials gave them an extra fifteen yards, landing them nicely in Dallas territory. A short time later and Seattle had capitalized on their improved field position, going ahead by twenty points and all but sewing up the game.

There’s room to argue about the hit on Sean Lee. Former officiating czar Mike Pereira opined that, "The hit on Lee [was] an illegal blindside block. Lee is considered defenseless, which means you can't lower your head & hit in head/neck area." Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett cautiously told reporters that he "thought [Lee] was a defenseless player who was hit . . . it seems to be that’s something the league is trying to guard against, and that [block] might be a pretty good example of what that was."

Others argued that Tate had hit Lee in the midsection, not the head/neck area. They agreed with the referees that while the block was a crushing one, it was also a clean. In my opinion, the block was outside the rules and worthy of a flag, but I will concede that there’s room for reasonable disagreement. It’s a closer call than either side of the argument might have you believe.


The bigger concern, however, is best enunciated by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell who discussed a pass interference call against Pittsburgh’s Ike Taylor in Sunday's match up between the Steelers and the Jets. The penalty came after a "tough but clean hit" by Steelers safety Ryan Clark on the Jets’ Santonio Holmes, and Barnwell commented:

"Now, it's not impossible for refs of any kind to invent a pass interference call where there shouldn't be one. What makes this one so damaging, though, is the Clark factor. Because Taylor's coverage was so obviously not a penalty and the Clark hit was so jarring, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that the refs threw the flag for the Clark hit, realized afterward that it was clean, and then called the penalty on Taylor because they didn't want to look bad. I'm not saying that's what actually happened, but it sure looks that way."

It’s hard to look at the unnecessary roughness penalty in the Cowboys-Seahawks game and not reach a similar conclusion.

My fair-minded side wants to give the referees the benefit of the doubt, or at least not damn them more than their regularly-employed counterparts. It would be frustrating but not out of the ordinary if Bruce Carter "earned" his penalty for going so far as to even touch a quarterback heading out of bounds. The NFL, in both its rules committee and its referees on the field, has shown a readiness to punish defenders when there is any contact with between a tackler and QB beyond a wholesome pat on the back. The argument could be made that the unnecessary roughness call, replacement refs or no, fits well within that typical quarterback-pampering framework.

But I’m tempted to think otherwise. I suspect that similarly to the call on Ike Taylor, the referee in the Cowboys-Seahawks match up saw Golden Tate’s stunning hit on Sean Lee and had a hair-trigger reaction. An untested ref reflexively threw a flag when witnessing that sort of rapid-fire show of force. It’s another bit of rampant speculation on my part, but I would not be surprised if the referee’s first thought after seeing the hit was the NFL’s recent focus on protecting defenseless players. Then, when the official had a chance to catch himself and maybe even look at the replay, he realized that despite the intensity of the hit, it was at least arguably fair, and he reconsidered the penalty.

But rather than pick up the flag and simply note that there was no foul on the play, he panicked. The referee, concerned about the increased scrutiny on the replacement refs, decided instead to call the unnecessary roughness penalty on Bruce Carter for his gentle push to send Russell Wilson out of bounds. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard to look at that play and see anyone wearing the star who stepped over the line with respect to contact. It was an official’s zealous initial reaction, his later contrary conclusion, and an attempt to save face that regrettably hurt the Dallas Cowboys.

No one play, one hit, or one penalty wins or loses a game. And if we wanted to break the game down to a handful of moments that directed the outcome, they would be blocked punts and fumbled kick returns early in the contest rather than a call late in the proceedings. What’s more, neither the Cowboys offense nor its defense seemed to have much of an answer for the Seahawks in the second half.

That said, while Dallas had done plenty to dig its own grave, that call may as well have put the nail in its coffin. I like the Cowboys’ chances much better when they’re likely to get the ball back with good field position and the bulk of the fourth quarter still on the scoreboard, than when their opponents have a thirty-yard gift from the officials and the team is rightfully demoralized.

But more importantly, calls like these are not only troubling from a competitive standpoint, but dangerous from the standpoint of player safety. I have nothing to say about the fairness of the league’s offer to the usual refs or the validity of the union’s demands, only about that labor standoff’s effect on the games being played, and the manner in which it puts the players at risk.

There’s a fine line between a clean, if punishing, hit and a blow that is outside the rules of the game. The NFL has moved that line recently, and it’s all the more difficult to make that call. But that’s what the officials are there to do, and it’s incumbent upon them to take these concerns about player safety very seriously. Referees who are afraid to make those tough calls should not be on the field.

Everyone makes mistakes, including and especially NFL referees, be they replacement or original recipe. The crew working the Dallas-Seattle game would not be the first to throw a flag only to confer and announce that there was no foul on the play. But the most troubling effect of the fight between the referees' union and the league is that that every week, the replacement referees feel like their credibility is on the line. So rather than admitting a mistake, they’re willing to conjure up a phantom call, like pass interference on Ike Taylor or unnecessary roughness on Bruce Carter, to justify their prior actions

Phantom penalties like these are incredibly damaging to the integrity and competitive balance of the sport. Anyone who has watched football for any length of time is familiar with errors in officiating. They are a frustrating but largely understandable part of the game. Self-justifying, fabricated penalties, however, are out of line and completely unacceptable. The replacement refs generally deserve the benefit of the doubt. Football fans should remember how many times they’ve yelled at the usual officials before they lambaste the current crop doing their best. But when a labor issue and the importance of saving face bleeds into the fabric of the game itself, and referees are unwilling to appear anything but infallible amid heightened scrutiny, things have gone too far.

Honest mistake are fine. Game-changing prevarications are not. Save the disingenuousness for the negotiating table. Player safety and the integrity of the game are at stake, and something must be done to make sure this type of egregious sham of a penalty never happens again. Or the credibility so desperately sought will be lost altogether.


More from The Andrew Blog.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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