Every fan base in the NFL thinks the zebras harbor a grudge against their team. There are obvious penalties missed, ticky-tack calls made, and it cannot be denied that the officials play too large a role in determining the outcome of some games. However, in the long run, things tend to average out, and usually teams aren’t being “picked on” as much as the fans think.
That is the rational take. But we have reached the point with the Dallas Cowboys that it is hard to keep maintaining that. Something just doesn’t seem right anymore.
There were a few things in the embarrassing loss to the Atlanta Falcons that illustrate this. First was the selective vision that seemed to be involved in facemask calls. Jeff Heath was flagged for “grasping a helmet opening”, in this case an earhole. Apparently that is the way the rules read. It may have been more a case of just sounding odd than being the wrong call, although the announcers admitted they were just like the rest of us in having never heard that before. But there were also at least two blatant facemask penalties on Atlanta that were never spotted by the officiating crew - or at least were never flagged. One of them, committed by sudden pass rushing monster Adrian Clayborn against Dak Prescott, is the picture at the top of this article. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, not all fouls are going to be seen and flagged, but this was on the quarterback, who is supposed to be protected to a degree.
Unfortunately for Prescott and the Cowboys, he seems to be getting something of the “Cam Newton treatment”. Prescott and Newton are both big, tough quarterbacks that are real threats running the ball, and it just seems that both are not given the same protection by the refs that other QBs are. Here is an example:
One of these was called roughing the passer. Another one was not. pic.twitter.com/MvtR8wDOKY— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 13, 2017
In Newton’s case, he was also seen as a showboat by many, which many think plays a role in his lack of protection from the refs. But Prescott is the exact opposite of that.
Now, the one real problem with these things is that we are still dealing with a very small sample size. Just a handful of plays. They may just not be statistically significant, but the typical variance we see from NFL officials (who admittedly seem to be really inconsistent, and just plain bad, across the board this year). What we need is something with a lot more instances of what appear to be slanted calls.
It's been 26 quarters since an offensive lineman has been called for holding against Dallas. That seems like an extraordinary long time.— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) November 13, 2017
Six and a half games with no holding calls against the other team’s offensive line. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have been getting those holding penalties dropped on them left and right. As Brandt notes, that just seems extraordinary.
Making things even more fishy: The Cowboys have not one, but two of the most effective defensive linemen in the league.
NFL defensive linemen and pass-rushers with more than nine tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage this year. pic.twitter.com/XhfgsYeMBd— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) November 13, 2017
Note that this is based on a combination of sacks and tackles for a loss. In other words, Demarcus Lawrence and David Irving are the league’s most productive pair of defensive linemen in making plays in the other team’s backfield. And that is with Irving having sat out the first four games of the season on suspension. The Cowboys also have Tyrone Crawford and Maliek Collins who are creating a good bit of disruption by penetrating the line.
Those are players who tend to generate holding calls. When a player is getting to a quarterback, offensive linemen will usually take the lesser of two evils by grabbing and hanging on. One lost play is far better than a QB out for the game or the season.
But for the Cowboys to have played roughly three and a quarter hours on defense without a single holding call against their opponent’s offensive line? With what has become one of the better pass rushes in the league?
It is getting harder and harder to chalk that up to random errors or chance.
This has led to a lot of conspiracy talk, that the officials are being used by the evil Sith lord Darth Goodell to enact his vengeance on Jerry-Wan Jones. But that seems far-fetched. First of all, if it ever got out that Goodell was overtly using the refs to make games come out the way he wanted them to, Jerry Jones would not have any problem mustering enough owners to oust Goodell. That is the very definition of violating the integrity of the game. More importantly (to the owners), making the playoffs directly affects their bottom line in a positive way, and if they realize that the commish was trying to affect their chances of getting there for his own purposes, they would not stand for it. And Jones has already shown his willingness to sue. Imagine the legal war that would come if any evidence of Goodell instructing the zebras to change the outcome of games involving Dallas came out.
The worst thing that this could rationally be is the officials developing their own prejudice against the Cowboys because of the many conflicts Jones is involved in, or just because they are all Eagles fans, or something. Far more plausible, there is just a rash of really bad officiating going on. What is becoming something of a problem for the NFL as a whole is that more and more people are starting to notice that long stretch of game time with no holding calls, and wonder what is going on. It seems likely that the officials could put a little emphasis on offensive holding when the Cowboys play. All they really need to do is drop a flag per game for it or so.
But the discontent is growing among Cowboys fans and media. It may not actually be a plot. It just looks more and more like one.
The NFL needs to fix this. It just seems wrong, and it reflects badly on the revered “integrity of the game”.
But fixing things has not exactly been the league’s strong suit of late.