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NFL Officiating Needs To Be Better

This is not an article that will claim the Dallas Cowboys lost their playoff game yesterday because of a blown official call. But it’s worth looking at two examples where the officials apparently didn’t even know the rules to ask whether the NFL can ever fix this problem.

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday’s Dallas - Green Bay playoff game, which the Packers won on a game-ending field goal 34-31 is an instant classic. Green Bay jumped out to a 21-3 lead half-way through the second quarter, and with 3:16 left in the third quarter, holding a 28-13 lead, had a 98% probability of winning the game. Yet Dallas clawed back to tie it at 28 all, and in the last 1:38 of the game, the win probability chart swung wildly back and forth.

This is offered as an illustration of how much difference a single play can have on a football game.

That brings us to the officiating for yesterday’s playoff game.

In the playoffs, the NFL scraps the regular crews that officiate games, and comes up with new crews made up of officials who rate better during the season. These were the crews for this weekend’s division series.

Overall in yesterday’s game, there were very few penalties. Green Bay was flagged three times for 22 yards. Dallas was flagged only six times for 50 yards. When these teams met in Green Bay earlier in the year, Dallas was flagged seven times for 60 yards, and Green Bay was flagged five times for 23 yards. So the flags for each game were pretty close in number, and they were not high by any measure.

The flags that were thrown were, however, potentially very influential in the game. There are two we are going to highlight.

The Unsportsmanlike Conduct Penalty On Brice Butler

This one sent me to look up the NFL Rules for the first time, because in my 50+ years of NFL watching, I can’t recall ever seeing it called. Dallas had the ball, second and five at the Green Bay 37 yard line, 5:55 left in the first quarter, Green Bay up 7-3. Brice Butler came onto the field, went to the middle where the Dallas players were starting to gather, then left without playing a snap. At the time Butler came into the game and left, Dak Prescott was still standing to the side and had not yet “huddled” the team, or moved the team to the line.

Here’s the rule.

ARTICLE 11. UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT. Using entering substitutes, legally returning players, substitutes on sidelines, or withdrawn players to confuse opponents, or lingering by players leaving the field when being replaced by a substitute, is unsportsmanlike conduct. See 12-3-1-l. The offense is prevented from sending simulated substitutions onto the field toward its huddle and returning them to the sideline without completing the substitution in an attempt to confuse the defense.

The problem with the call on the field is that nothing Brice Butler did could have been interpreted as intended “to confuse opponents,” or “an attempt to confuse the defense.”

After Butler left, Dallas huddled, got to the line, and ran the play, which was a 22-yard pass down to the Green Bay 15 yard line. Instead, the 15-yard penalty backed up Dallas to it’s 48 yard line, where on 2nd and 20, Dallas threw incomplete, then incomplete again and punted. At the very least this cost the Cowboys three points.

The only “confusion” caused by this play was the referee’s call.

Pass Interference Call on Anthony Brown

With the game tied at 28-all, Green Bay got the ball back with 4:08 to play. Just inside the 2-minute warning, first and 10 at the Dallas 45, Aaron Rodgers threw deep down the right sideline, where the ball was intercepted by Jeff Heath. However, a penalty was called on Anthony Brown for pass interference, negating the interception and moving the ball to the Dallas 35.

From there, Ty Montgomery ran for two yards, ran again for minus 5 yards, and Rodgers threw incomplete on third down. Mason Crosby then kicked a 56 yard field goal to take a 31-28 lead.

Let’s look at that “pass interference” call. Here’s the rule.

SECTION 5 PASS INTERFERENCE ARTICLE 1. DEFINITION. It is pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball. Pass interference can only occur when a forward pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, regardless of whether the pass is legal or illegal, or whether it crosses the line. Defensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the ball is touched. See Article 2 for prohibited acts while the ball is in the air.

Note these words: “Defensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the ball is touched.”

The problem with this call is that at the time Anthony Brown hooked Ty Montgomery, Aaron Rodgers was still holding the ball! The call should have been defensive holding, which is a five yard penalty, not a spot foul, and had everything else held up, Green Bay wouldn’t have been in field goal range to take a 31-28 lead.

The other mistake in this play is that the referee called the foul on “42” - Barry Church, not “30” - Anthony Brown. Barry Church was on the field, but he wasn’t even near the play.

There were plenty of other calls that were missed in the game, and quite a few of them should have gone against Dallas. For example, Orlando Scandrick grabbed one Green Bay receiver’s jersey so much he pulled it off the shoulder pads, yet wasn’t called for holding. Mo Claiborne got away with a similar hold. If you went through the game, you could find many more. But these are judgment calls that likely can never be eliminated.

The problem with the two examples highlighted here is that even the “good referees” apparently don’t even know the rules, which ought to be unacceptable in the NFL.

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