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Inside Slant: Referee Pete Morelli had four potential penalties on key play

1/5/2015



The idea here was to document and explain the usual smattering of ambiguous, controversial or otherwise debatable officiating calls from the NFL's wild-card weekend. What we got was a national outcry about one third-down play, featuring four potential penalties that all went uncalled by referee Pete Morelli and his crew in the Dallas Cowboys' 24-20 comeback victory over the Detroit Lions.

Let's break down that play from every angle, using the NFL rulebook and common sense -- gasp! -- as our guide. Then we'll hit a few additional calls from Sunday and from Saturday evening in Pittsburgh. (And if you missed it, here's the post on referee Ed Hochuli's magical Saturday afternoon in Charlotte, North Carolina).

Sunday's playoff-altering moment came with 8 minutes, 25 seconds remaining at AT&T Stadium. On third-down-and-1 from the Cowboys' 46-yard line, Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew was lined up as a receiver to the left of the formation. Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens was in coverage.

I know everyone is fired up about Morelli picking up a flag on what appeared to be a pass interference penalty on Hitchens -- later telling a pool reporter that the crew determined Hitchens was legally "face guarding" -- but let's look at this multilayered play in totality.

Pettigrew got a step on Hitchens, who grabbed the back of Pettigrew's jersey with his left hand in violation of the NFL's defensive holding rule. This was a point-of-emphasis penalty in 2014 and was called a league-record 347 times in the regular season. No penalty was called.

As the ball approached the 25-yard line, both Pettigrew and Hitchens initiated contact with each other. Pettigrew put his hands on Hitchens' face mask, which could (and should) have been a penalty for violating Rule 12, Section 2, Article 14 of the NFL rulebook. ("No player shall grasp and control, twist, turn push or pull the facemask of an opponent in any direction.")

Pettigrew wasn't penalized, but Hitchens was initially called for defensive pass interference. Specifically, Hitchens appeared to violate Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(a) of the NFL rulebook, which prohibits "contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent's ability to make the catch."

Hitchens never turned around, so by definition he was not playing the ball. Pettigrew slowed a bit in his attempt to make the catch. Hitchens collided with him, leading with his left arm, knocking Pettigrew on his back.

Seconds later, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant ran onto the field to protest the call. He was not wearing a helmet. Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(j) prohibits "removal of a helmet by a player in the field of play or the end zone during a celebration or demonstration or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player."

After about a minute, Morelli announced there was no penalty for pass interference and picked up the flag. He is not required to provide further explanation, and did not until speaking with a pool reporter a few hours later.

According to Morelli, back judge Lee Dyer initially called for pass interference. Head linesman Jerry Bergman then convinced the group that the contact was "minimal" and "didn't warrant pass interference."

Instead, Morelli referred to it as "face guarding," which is playing pass defense with the back to the quarterback and blocking vision of the ball. It is legal in the NFL.

The key here is whether the contact was truly minimal. It seemed thorough enough to knock down Pettigrew, whom the Lions list at 275 pounds. In his interview, Morelli seemed less than 100 percent convinced, saying Bergman "thought" it was face guarding and refusing to offer his own opinion. It's worth noting here that the NFL scrambles officiating crews for the playoffs, assembling them based on grades rather than on whom they worked with in the regular season.

This sequence of events will push this game into the echelon of NFL history -- the "Phantom Flag Game" was an initial start on social media -- and the ensuing confusion was a bad look for the NFL. Is it the primary reason the Cowboys won and the Lions lost? No. The decision reduced the Lions' win probability at that point from 78 percent to a still-healthy 66 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It's also not uncommon for flags to be picked up. The delay between the call and the pickup likely can be attributed to the relative unfamiliarity between crew members.

Still, at a key moment in the game, the NFL fell far short of the competence and transparency it owes its players, coaches, executives and -- oh yeah -- fans. It must do better.

Play: Players contacted a punter twice in Dallas, but only one was called a penalty.

Referee: Morelli

Analysis: The first instance came with 7:35 remaining in the first quarter. The Cowboys' Dakota Watson extended in an attempt to block Sam Martin's punt for the Lions. Martin got the punt away cleanly, and Watson hit the ground underneath him. Martin fell over the top of Watson.

Although there was minimal contact between the two, Watson still violated the rules for running into the kicker. Among the definitions provided in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 10, Item 2(b) is if the defender "slides under the kicker, preventing him from returning both feet the ground." Watson's movement was a clear example, and Morelli's crew got the call right.

Meanwhile, in the second quarter, the Lions' George Winn got past Cowboys blocker Gavin Escobar and contacted punter Chris Jones, who fell to the ground. Morelli's crew did not make a call. Had Escobar blocked Winn into Jones? Was the contact worth a penalty? Those are the two key questions.

Winn's momentum from beating Escobar carried him into Jones, but it would be tough to argue he was blocked into him. The aforementioned rule, however, includes this clause: "It is not a foul if the contact is not severe."

Although we have seen roughing the kicker called before in similar situations, the contact did not seem severe to me. Winn actually grabbed Jones' jersey with his left hand in an attempt to keep him upright. It was a defensible no-call.

Play: No call on deep pass to Cincinnati Bengals receiver Brandon Tate.

Referee: Carl Cheffers

Analysis: At the end of the third quarter Sunday, Tate ran a deep post pattern against two Indianapolis Colts defenders. He got a step on both, but cornerback Mike Adams was in pursuit.

After quarterback Andy Dalton released the ball, Adams used his right shoulder to bump into Tate's left shoulder. Tate fell down, and Adams then turned around to locate the ball, which hit the ground several yards from him.

Based on what the replay showed, this play should have been called defensive pass interference. It violated Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2(e), which prohibits a defender from cutting off the path of an opponent by making contact with him, without playing the ball." Adams did not turn to play the ball until after he collided with Tate.

Play: Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier drags Baltimore Ravens tailback Justin Forsett away from a loose ball.

Referee: Clete Blakeman

Analysis: With just under 12 minutes remaining in Saturday night's game, Forsett fumbled after colliding with Shazier and teammate Owen Daniels. Shazier saw the fumble immediately and grabbed Forsett's left arm, pulling him away from the ball. Eventually, Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt recovered.

NFL rules allow a player to "push or pull an opponent out of the way in a personal attempt to recover the ball." [Rule 12, Section 1, Article 2(b).] If the player who pushes or pulls -- in this case, Shazier -- is not trying to recover the ball, defensive holding can be called.

Did Shazier attempt to recover the ball? It did not appear that way, although pulling Forsett away put him in position to if Tuitt hadn't first fallen on it.

Ultimately, this instance is a unique judgment call. I reached out to ESPN rules analyst Jim Daopoulos, a former NFL official, who said he felt strongly that, in reality, no official would view Shazier's actions as defensive holding. So it goes.