Five years ago, few would have freaked out about the face-mask penalty that extended Thursday night's wild game at Ford Field. (Trust me, it happened five years ago, and many have long since forgotten it.)
Fifteen years ago, no one would have noticed at all.
NFL officiating is under siege this season, in many cases by its own making, but referee Carl Cheffers' call Thursday night does not fit neatly into that box. NFL officials have been making that call for decades, using the rotation of a quarterback's head and helmet during real time as a reliable sign that a defender had illegally grabbed his face mask. You just wouldn't have realized it until technology emerged to show you.
When you slow down and watch Thursday night's play slowly in high definition, you can see Detroit Lions defensive end Devin Taylor's right hand graze the helmet of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Taylor's hand then slipped down to Rodgers' right shoulder on what would have been the final play of the game. The resulting twist was not violent, and not all officials would have judged it the same way. But the NFL rulebook says no player can "grasp and control, twist, turn, push or pull the face mask of an opponent in any direction," and that's what appeared to have happened in live action.
The massive pushback from many in the television audience isn't a unique outcry to a particularly egregious and far-reaching call. Instead, it's very much a part of a new layer of NFL viewership that allows for every play to be picked apart frame by frame, feeding the always-simmering notion that something unnatural and unfair caused the final result.
Speaking late Thursday night on NFL Network, league vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said: "[L]ive at full speed, the referee is going to see that hand at the mask and the head turn, and he’s going to make that call every time."
Thursday night, the Packers used the extra play provided by the penalty to complete a 61-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to win, 27-23. The immediate narrative suggested the penalty call gave the Packers a key divisional victory, when in reality it provided the Packers a chance for a miracle. According to ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke, the Packers' chances of completing a Hail Mary from that position on the field was less than 5 percent.
Regardless, it's worth comparing this outcry to what happened -- or didn't -- after the Packers' loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 NFC divisional playoffs. If you recall, a wild game ended when Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby recovered a Rodgers fumble in overtime and returned it 17 yards for the winning score.
About an hour later, the Associated Press moved a photograph of the play on its wire. It showed Cardinals cornerback Michael Adams with a finger grip of Rodgers' face mask during the contact that caused the fumble. Adams pulled hard enough that Rodgers' helmet was over his eyes. A penalty would have wiped out the touchdown, extending the game, but referee Scott Green made no call.
NFL officiating faced less scrutiny at the time, and there was no impetus to examine every play for mistakes. And before the ubiquity of HD television broadcasts over the past 10-15 years, there really wasn't a tool for such inspection. Public discussion of that call in the 2009 playoffs -- a play that ended the Packers' season -- was far less intense than what we see now on a weekly basis.
The point here is to recognize that part of the 2015 officiating story is a change not in quality of the calls but in the experience and access of fans and viewers. There are limits to what the eye can see and the brain can process when on the field in real time. That has been the case forever. Now, however, the television audience sometimes has a better view than officials on the field.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suggested this week that it might be time to use technology to give officials an assist they've never had available to them before. That will take time and a good bit of experimentation. But in the meantime, let's try to make the distinction between mistakes and inevitable human imperfection. We saw the latter Thursday night.