Generally speaking, sports fans are idiots. Football fans are dumber still. That’s why it came as no surprise yesterday when John Q. Pigskin turned into a sniveling conspiracy theorist after the pass interference call that wasn’t in the Cowboys’ win over the Lions. As soon as referee Pete Morelli waved off the penalty against the Cowboys, a penalty he had just announced to the stadium, Twitter lit up with accusations of game fixing. And remember that Twitter is only used by those with a working knowledge of the written word, putting the morons hashtagging #thefixisin in the 75th percentile of NFL fans. Imagine what the rest of them were thinking.
Now lets be clear: The NFL isn’t rigged, but it is a mess. Starting with the officials, who made this disaster for themselves by announcing the PI call before waving it off. They could have huddled first then dismissed the penalty without ever giving the appearance of impropriety. But they did it backwards and that was bad. They were atrocious the whole game, missing calls against both teams. That’s nothing new of course, and it’s certainly nothing to cry conspiracy over. Fact is, no one would be talking about Dez Bryant going on to the field without his helmet, a missed fair catch interference call against the Lions, or any of the other questionable flags were it not for the now infamous non-call. That’s how routine bad refereeing is in the NFL. As long as it doesn’t rise to the level of absurdity, we quickly forget about it. So, yes, pile on the refs for incompetence all you want, but it’s going to take a lot more to convince us of corruption.
While we’re pointing fingers, let’s quickly turn to the NFL rulebook, which defines pass interference as “any player movement beyond the line of scrimmage [that] significantly hinders the progress of an eligible player…” Subjective, ass-covering rules like that give officials the ability to call anything a penalty, or as in this case, not call anything a penalty, and be correct.
So this isn’t just about officials doing a bad job, it’s about bad rules. What it’s not about is bad people in the league office stealing games for America’s Team. The NFL simply has no incentive to tip the scales in the Cowboys favor. Why risk the integrity of its product so the Cowboys can record one more win before the Packers paste them next weekend? For one night of good ratings, as many have suggested? The NFL gets good ratings no matter what. It simply makes no sense. But the league office shouldn’t escape criticism. As Fox’s referee expert Mike Pereira pointed out before the game, the NFL doesn’t keep officiating crews together in the playoffs. Meaning the refs working this game were not used to each other, a factor that could have easily played a role in the picked up flag heard ‘round the world.
With that out of the way, let’s turn to the man who should be the target of Lions fan ire--head coach Jim Caldwell. This is the man who could have made the fourth quarter officiating debacle irrelevant by converting the fourth-and-one that followed. Instead, he chose to take a five yard delay of game penalty and punt. It was a terrible punt, which he can’t be blamed for, and a terrible decision, which he can be blamed for. All Caldwell had to do was trust his team on fourth and one, which NFL teams convert at about a 65 percent clip. According to the “Fourth Down Calculator” at Advanced Football Analytics, the Lions could have expected to score .60 points if they had gone for it, while a punt would net -.26 expected points. So next weekend when you’re cursing Roger Goodell and referee Pete Morelli because you have to look at Tony Romo’s dumb face for another four quarters, lob a few epitates Caldwell’s way too. Just don’t blame it on some grand scheme to give all the glory to the Cowboys, because if that existed they would have a different quarterback.
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