Who Exactly Is Making These Calls?

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Let’s get two things out of the way first.

1. The NFL did not “rig” (or try to “rig”) the outcome of the Cowboys-Lions game.
2. There need not be any “conspiracy” among league officials, to constitute foul play. All you need is one person.

This doesn’t make the events involving the “Disappearing Flag” in Dallas any more shady. By all appearances – and precedent – there was an almost too-crazy-to-be-true confluence of fuck-ups all at once. All of which somehow had the effect of preventing a close game from sliding to an uneventful conclusion, while also giving a helping hand to a team nobody in their right minds thinks is NOT a preferred “darling” of the NFL league office.

What a miracle.
/sarcastic deadpan

To boil it down: A clearly RIGHT call, was turned into a WRONG call, a full 43 seconds after the flag hit the ground and was ANNOUNCED to the stadium crowd and the live TV audience. The ball was even SPOTTED at the new line of scrimmage, before the penalty was summarily wiped out, to the roaring delight of the home crowd. All without a single word of EXPLANATION from the head referee, Pete Morelli.

The decision left both the Fox network announcers stunned and confused, in addition to each radio crew for the Lions and Cowboys. While there is no firm “rule” that once a penalty is announced to the crowd, that the call is final, it is so utterly rare to see, that literally nobody I have heard in the last 24 hours has said: “Oh yeah, that happened in a game I was watching a few weeks ago.”

Furthermore, noted Cowboys hot-head Dez Bryant, rushed onto the field without a helmet on to protest the call, presenting one of the easiest matter-of-fact unsportsmanlike penalties the refs could call. Just a few weeks ago, the Steelers William Gay was penalized against the Chiefs for merely folding his arms and posing IN FRONT OF HIS OWN SIDELINE!

The fact Dez wasn’t flagged, was nothing short of collective zebra cowardice said Tony Dungy. “For an official not to have the courage to call that – Dez Bryant is out on the field at the time, he’s an offensive player, there’s no reason he’s out there other than to argue the call with no helmet on – every official should have thrown a flag at that point,” said Dungy.

He’s right. That should have been a SHOWER of yellow hankies.

So how does this happen?

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For starters, the NFL’s policy of using “mixed crews” for playoff games is perhaps the worst idea since “New Coke.” An NFL officiating crew is a modern day sporting version of “Ocean’s 11.” Each guy has his own duties, and special skills. And they all must work together. Imagine if Danny Ocean said after the successful casino heist in “11” that he was going to go with a better version of Rusty Ryan from a different crew in “12” because that guy “graded out better” at disguises?

So why does the NFL do this? Nobody really knows. Ask them. Something about “rewarding” the best refs with post-season assignments. Okay, how about this: reward the best CREWS as a whole, and then you can give bonus checks to guys who grade well alone, but are stuck working with that fired manager of your local Kinko’s, Jeff Triplette.

The most benign explanation for this goat-screw is that the jumbled crew just didn’t communicate effectively at a key inflection point of the game. Okay, fine. Fix it, like tomorrow. The NFL could do just that, saying we are going back to unified crews from here forward.

Of course, I doubt they will. It would require a modicum of honesty and accountability from a league that has been running roughshod over everything in their way since Roger Goodell took over.

A more troubling question is really this: WHO IS MAKING THESE CALLS?

Oh I know what you’ll say, “Pete Morelli made the final call, silly. Didn’t you hear his explanation?”

And you believe him? Why? Given that the league has wired up refs to be able to talk to each other on the field – see Ed Hochuli’s “Jungle Boy” gaffe from Saturday – and given that the NFL has an “upstairs official” at each game site who can conference in with the league’s officiating “Command Center” in New York City – then the wiring is in place to commit all kinds of mischief with the mere click of a button.

In the 43 seconds between the yellow hitting the turf and Morelli’s “ahhh, never mind”, there was easily enough space for  someone in the darkened room in New York to buzz in to the game official at Jerry World with a warning: “Hey (Game Official) this one is really tricky. Lots of contact all around. Buzz down to Morelli and tell him to MAKE SURE he’s got a good bead on this one.”

Morelli gets the word in his ear from upstairs, that “CentCom” in NYC is “concerned” about getting it “right” and he suddenly has every reason to look for a reason to pick that flag up. He doesn’t need a memo. He doesn’t need a sign from the stands. He doesn’t even need to be TOLD directly to pick up the flag, the mere implication that “New York City” is “concerned” that he get it “right” is more than enough for any dummy (even Jeff Triplette) to feel which way the wind is blowing.

All of this can, and does happen, at amazing speeds now in the NFL.

I know for a fact, because of something stunning that happened in a Redskins game this year. First year ref Brad Allen exited the sideline replay booth to announce “the call stands” in a game against the Rams. He then took three steps back toward the middle of the field to resume play, before stopping abruptly, and doing a U-turn back to the replay booth!

I was gobsmacked!

Where exactly, in the rulebook, is there an allowance for an “appeal” to a video review? And what told Brad Allen that the call he had just made and announced to the crowd on the stadium microphone, was actually stupid and wrong, and might just need a second look?

A sudden seizure of guilt? Faint voices of Jerry Markbreit echoing in his head?

Or almost more certainly, a directive in his ear from somebody upstairs at FedEx Field, currently on hold with one Dean B. from the 212 area code.

Of course, upon second look, Allen changed his call and the majority of fans mumbled to themselves something about “well, at least they got it right.”

And that’s what the NFL will certainly fall back on now that replay has been almost hardwired into the games itself. “We just want to get the calls right.”

Yeah, but the problem is this: if you try to get calls “right” by allowing quasi-legal reviews of non-reviewable calls (like say, pass interference) then you have the ability to seek out not necessarily the “right” call, but the “preferred” call.

And of course, the NFL PREFERRED that this game didn’t slip away from a taught final minutes thriller, and they of course PREFERRED that the Cowboys and Packers would reprise a lesser version of the Ice Bowl at Lambeau next week for a TV rating that will surely set records for a Divisional Round matchup.

It is the local butcher putting his finger on the scale when he sells you meat. It’s not Watergate.

That doesn’t make the practice any less distasteful or troubling. And it doesn’t mean were going to find a new butcher anytime soon. That NFL filet is so succulent, anyone who says they are “done” with the NFL, is a bald faced liar.

Of course, you are free to dismiss me as a tinfoil hat wearing lunatic. But while you are at it, you need to do the same thing to Fox’s “Ref Whisperer” Mike Pereira. He too asked all these same questions this season in a column for Fox Sports, only this time his ire was at the Southeast Conference.

Yes indeed, Mike. Who IS making these calls? And is anybody going to have the stones stand up and say: “This crap has to end!”

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Steve Czaban is a 25 year sports radio veteran, who hosts an afternoon drive show in Washington D.C. "Czabe" also writes and edits his own commentaries for www.czabe.com and other on-line and print publications. He can be reached at czabe@yahoo.com.

6 COMMENTS

  1. late hit on murray and hands to the face not called on dez pass play drive. defensive guy going low on romo on his td pass..not called. Bad calls/ non calls happen both ways. I think if it was originally not flagged we would not be having this conversation, which i guess is the point..the reversal was bad, but i don’t think there is a single person from a dark room making the calls…that is absurd….Also, there was an offensive facemask by pettigre on that play.

  2. Good call, Steve. It’s not that this proves there’s straightforward cheating going on; it’s that we don’t know what’s going on, and this makes it look like unknown people have a lot more opportunity to influence games than we thought. I personally like replay, but we were told that replay was limited to certain plays and used according to specific guidelines. If the replay equipment that connects the refs to some guys behind the curtain is being used to guide the refs whenever they like during the game, that’s very bad.

    I’ve wondered before at how many late flags there are, especially for defensive holding. The flag on that usually should come out early in the play, when the receiver is held within a few yards from the line of scrimmage, yet it often comes flying out after the end of the play a few seconds later. Now I’m wondering if that’s because a little birdie in the ref’s ear said, “Hey, you missed a big hold over there.” The refs can only see so much; a biased guy in a booth somewhere giving them pointers could sway a handful of calls per game without anyone knowing the difference. It wouldn’t even show in replays, because the calls could all be correct, just noticed more for one side than the other.

    By the way, I catch your show by downloading the podcasts. Right after your good rant today about tightening up your digital diet to avoid all the garbage out there, there was a podcast promo for the Pauly Shore show. I kid you not.

  3. A retired NFL ref was asked about why they don’t keep crews intact and he tactfully said its because there could be some really good crews with a couple very weak links and experienced, top performing refs should be able to mesh together quickly. It is a good bet that if they used the best crews and they royally screwed up a playoff game (which would inevitably happen), there would be a lot of questions on why they don’t just bring together the best and the brightest to work the playoffs.

  4. I don’t think you’re crazy at all. Remember the 49ers-Ravens SuperBowl and the mysterious power outage? Someone wanted the 49ers to win…

  5. The thing I find absolutely hilarious is that Czabe, along with a whole bunch of other fans, made a big deal out of the replacement refs being bad. This non-PI call and the holding call (which for some reason the NFL felt they needed to explain rather than the more obvious PI) as well as a handful of other calls in this game show what a joke the “professionals” are. Only this mistake was worse than the Fail Mary. Yes, the Fail Mary had the potential to keep the Packers out of the playoffs with the loss, but this cost the Lions a PLAYOFF GAME. I’m sorry, but these “pros” aren’t worth the money they’re getting, which was the original reason for the lockout.

    This was absolutely the most shameful and disgraceful display of so-called professionalism ever seen by mankind, whether or not there was a conspiracy behind it.

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