The Dallas Cowboys are set to visit the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, but their victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday is still being picked over.
Dean Blandino, the vice president for officiating for the NFL, said Monday that the Cowboys should have been penalized at a key point in the fourth quarter.
With Detroit up 20-17 and driving downfield, officials initially ruled that Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens had interfered with Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Hitchens was not going for the ball and was draped around Pettigrew. Mike Pereira — Blandino's predecessor, who now is an analyst for Fox Sports — said during the game that pass interference should have been called.
But after the flag was dropped, the officials conferred and picked it up, ruling there would be no penalty on the play. Detroit punted, and Dallas mounted a late touchdown drive to win 24-20.
Blandino told NBC Sports Radio's "Pro Football Talk" that pass interference, which occurs when a defender is not playing the ball and "restricts the receiver's opportunity to make the catch," was questionable. But Blandino said the Cowboys should have been called for defensive holding because Hitchens held Pettigrew's jersey earlier in the play.
Pass interference penalties result in an automatic first down and the ball spotted at the point of the foul. Defensive holding is a 5-yard penalty and an automatic first down.
The reversal of the call has led to a host of theories by fans on social media, some of whom claim that the NFL was eager to see the Cowboys, the league's most valuable franchise, advance in the playoffs. Blandino said the referees should have conferred before they called pass interference.
Throwing the flag and then reversing the call led to confusion, he acknowledged.
Referee Pete Morelli told reporters that the back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference. The head linesman, who had a different angle, thought "the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference." After the officials spoke, Morelli reversed the call.
Morelli, too, acknowledged that officials should have spoken before he announced the penalty.
Fans have also questioned why Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was not called for unsportsmanlike conduct after he ran on the field without wearing his helmet to dispute the initial pass interference call. Had Bryant been flagged, the Cowboys would have been penalized 15 yards and the Lions would have had a first down.
Blandino, however, said what Bryant did was not automatically a penalty because the rule against players taking off their helmet applies to only those in the game. Blandino said he would have supported a penalty on Bryant, but the officials used their discretion and chose not to call one.
Some analysts said the confusion could have been avoided if the officials were more familiar with one another. In the playoffs, the NFL assembles crews of officials who had the best performance during the regular season. Blandino said there are "pros and cons" to having "all-star" crews, but he said most officials "have worked together at some point in their career."
The disputed call was not subject to a replay review. Lions coach Jim Caldwell wonders if it's time to change that.
"I think without question it was probably not officiated correctly in my estimation," Caldwell, wrapping up his first season with Detroit, told reporters Monday from Allen Park, Mich. "Nevertheless, I do think in this day and age, with modern times where we have technology that can take out the human factor in certain key situations in big games, that we should use that technology to do so."
Coaches aren't allowed to signal for replay reviews of potential pass interference calls, but Caldwell indicated Monday he would like to see the league allow more reviews if possible.
"For the sake of time, and those kinds of things in a game ... you have to have some boundaries," he said. "I do think that particularly in big games and down the stretch, and playoffs, and things of that nature, I'm not certain there should be a limit on when you can review."
As for Dallas coach Jason Garrett's response to the controversy, he said Monday: "I want to be really respectful about this answer. We're talking about the wrong stuff. We're talking about officiating after a game. I would like to think that I would say that when the call goes against us, and certainly want to say it when the call goes for us. There's a lot of calls in a game that impact the game and we never really try to get caught up with those as coaches and players."