Geez. To hear coach Mike Zimmer and his players talk about the Lions, you’d think Detroit was in first place in the NFC North, not last place.
Of course, in defense of the Vikings’ gushing praise, only the finest of lines separates what could have been a 3-1-1 first-place Lions team and the actual 2-2-1 last-place Lions team the Vikings (4-2) will face at Ford Field on Sunday.
Yes, Detroit settled for five field goals in Monday’s 23-22 loss at Green Bay. But, as the entire football-watching world has discussed with great passion and near-universal consternation the past 48 hours, the officials struggled once again while playing a significant role in the Lions’ loss on Sunday.
There were four questionable calls down the stretch. All went against the Lions. Two went against defensive end Trey Flowers for illegal hands to the face. Both negated third-down stops. The second one, which is the only one the league admitted was a blown call, came with 1 minute, 45 seconds left, the Packers at the Detroit 14-yard line and the Lions out of timeouts.
So, instead of Green Bay kicking a field goal with about 1:40 left and putting the ball back in the hands of comeback artist Matthew Stafford, the Packers ran the clock down and kicked the game-winner as time expired.
Asked Wednesday for his thoughts on the blown call the league already fessed up to, Zimmer, whether he intended to or not, revealed that the NFL has issued essentially a gag order on commenting on the embattled officiating.
Looking over at Bob Hagan, the Vikings’ head of media relations, Zimmer said, “I’m not allowed to comment on officiating. Bob just sent me an e-mail on it.”
Zimmer actually got the same e-mail as his 31 NFL peers.
Asked if he could explain the frustration level that comes with a blown call that the league admits was a blown call, Zimmer paused and said, “The politically correct answer is that throughout time coaches have been frustrated when they’ve gotten bad calls against them or conceived bad calls against them. And I better stop right there.”
Meanwhile, channeling his inner Bill Belichick, Lions coach Matt Patricia was on to Minnesota by the time Twin Cities reporters talked to him via Wednesday’s conference call. To do anything other than talk about the Vikings, he said, would be “disrespectful to them.”
“What’s great about our world is we kind of live in a little bit of a bubble here,” Patricia said when asked for his reaction to the league admitting a blown call. “I just kind of focus on the things that I need to focus on. I didn’t really pay attention to any of that. It won’t have any bearing on the game we just got done with and it’s certainly not going to help us going forward.”
But fans and headline writers have no choice but to keep looking backward as the missed calls pile up week after week while everyone from Tom Brady on down tweet their frustrations about the number of penalties.
“It’s pretty undoubtable that there are a lot of flags right now,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “I know from my perspective the last few weeks, when we’ve had an explosive play, I basically stop and look around assuming that it’s coming back because I’ve gotten to a place now where I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
John Parry, former 19-year NFL official and current ESPN NFL rules analyst, was asked Wednesday if the NFL is facing a “crisis” with its officiating. Parry worked the Lions-Packers game for ESPN and disagreed with all four controversial calls that went against the Lions, saying the first illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on Flowers was no different from the one the league admitted was a blown call.
“I’m not going to describe it as a crisis,” he told the Star Tribune. “The word that I’d like to use at this point is culture. There is an issue with the culture of officiating.”
Among the key problems, he said, are more hires having fewer years of experience, a training staff of two being stretched too thin for 120-some officials, and the league office’s choice in recent weeks not to reverse incorrect calls or no-calls upon review.
“So now every miss is under the microscope,” Parry said. “Every miss is escalated. And, sadly, NFL officiating is a story week in and week out.”
What’s the answer?
Parry said it starts with better recruiting of new officials. Finding good ones with closer to the 13 years of overall experience he had when he was hired in 2000.
“Training does need to improve, which they did address in the new CBA,” Parry said. “The NFL will hire somebody as a vice president of training next year. But you know what? America is looking for answers today. What do we do today?
“For starters, officials have to understand and go into each and every game knowing that if you’re going to interject yourself into the game, make the call be there. Get the big ones right and make them be there.”