The overblown Cowboys-Lions no-call controversy

January 5, 2015

I love a good conspiracy as much as the next guy, but this is getting silly.

Immediately after the Cowboys defeated the Lions 24-20 on Sunday there was outrage across the internet from fans and media. All of the controversy centered on a “no-call” made in the fourth quarter of the game.

The Play Itself

Let’s first recap what happened.

The Lions were leading 20-17, and on 3rd down and 1 a Matthew Stafford pass to Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew was broken up by Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens around the Cowboys 30-yard line. A flag was thrown.

There was some contact on the play, but not a huge amount to make the call totally obvious. The more eye-catching part of it was that Hitchens never turned around towards the ball before it deflected off his back.

The Cowboys, seeing the flag, were in an uproar, asserting Hitchens was merely “face guarding” – a practice of just playing the man without making a play on the ball that is illegal in college but not in the NFL. Nonetheless, the initial call by the back line judge was that Hitchens had made contact with Pettigrew sufficient to warrant a pass interference call.

But then things got really strange.

The head linesman, who had a different angle on the play, began asserting that the contact had been minor and the flag should be picked up, prompting the head referee to shortly thereafter announce that there had been no foul on the play. It was now 4th and 1 at the Cowboys 46-yard line.

The Lions were understandably in shock.

The Conspiracy Theories Begin

Any reasonable football fan who is not a blind Cowboys-lover or a blind Cowboys-hater (and there are plenty of both), would freely admit that it is highly unusual to ever see a reversal of a pass interference call.

Even crazier was that the defensive pass interference call was actually announced by the head referee within seconds of the flag being thrown…before the call was reversed and the flag picked up.

If no flag had ever been thrown, the Lions surely would have complained (just as the Cowboys initially did) but this play would have quickly been forgotten – just another tough call in a tight game. But the way it was called: (1) throwing a flag; (2) announcing a call; and then (3) saying there was no foul, has sparked intense vitriol from many NFL fans and media members.

Unfortunately such anger has led to, as anger often does, some shoddy logic and absurd conclusions by normally intelligent people.

Instead of being content to criticize the officials for bungling the call, many fans and some pundits are going the conspiracy route instead. The most popular conspiracy theories are that (1) this game was “fixed” by the NFL itself for the purpose of having a ratings bonanza next week when the Cowboys visit Green Bay; (2) Cowboys owner Jerry Jones somehow “paid off” the referees; or (3) some sports gambling interest impacted the outcome.

Such theories are always attractive to people in moments of extreme frustration because they are easy to articulate and require neither specific evidence nor intelligent reasoning.

All it takes is just enough feeling of disbelief and shock at the no-call reversal to push one to reject the more obvious explanation – an officiating blunder. Once that is done, other marginally relevant facts become the basis to connect the dots for some crazy argument or another (“The NFL has been shady in other areas, like the handling of the Ray Rice matter, so…” “Jerry Jones is rich and greedy and probably knows a lot of important people, so…” “There is a lot of money bet on the outcome of NFL games, so…”)

Thus, to argue against any particular no-call conspiracy theory in the absence of any specific facts is pretty much pointless.

But one interesting thing we can talk about is the presumption that links all of these theories: That the no-call is THE reason the Lions lost to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.

Did the no-call actually win the game for the Cowboys?

To address that question, let’s imagine a conversation between two NFL fans.

Fan #1 has watched the game, was outraged at the no-call reversal, and believes that call determined the outcome of the game. Fan #2, for whatever reason, couldn’t catch the game. Neither have strong feelings for the Lions or the Cowboys and both are basically honest people.

Fan #1: You missed a crazy game! The Lions were totally robbed by the refs.

Fan #2: What happened?

Fan #1: The Lions were winning and driving down the field in the 4th quarter when there was an obvious pass interference on the Cowboys linebacker. The ref throws the flag and they announce PI, but then out of nowhere they picked up the flag and said there was no penalty on the play! The most ridiculous thing I ever saw an officiating crew do. The NFL is totally rigged!

Fan #2: I hate it when the refs decide the outcome like that! So like, was the pass in the end zone? Would the Lions have gotten the ball at the Dallas 1-yard line?

Fan #1: Uh, no. The ball would have been at the Dallas 30-yard line. But trust me dude, it was a total gamechanger of a play. Without that call, there is no way Dallas would have won. Jerry Jones totally paid somebody off!

Fan #2: Hmm. I bet if the Lions had gotten a first down on that play, the game was basically over right? I mean, the Lions could basically run out the clock?

Fan #1: Well, not exactly…

Fan #2: Why? Was there more than two minutes to go? How much time was left?

Fan#1: At the time of the controversial no-call there was 8:18 left in the fourth quarter.

Fan #2: Really? (Thinking to himself: That’s kind of a lot of time left still.) But I didn't watch the game so I don’t know all the important details. Like I bet it was pretty obvious the way the Lions were playing on offense that they would have gone in for the score from the Dallas 30-yard line?

Fan#1: No, not really. I mean the Lions offense played well in the first half, but they slowed down big time. They had only scored three points in the second half at that point.

Fan #2: Oh. Well, even at the 30-yard line they were already in field goal range. Do the Lions have a good kicker?

Fan #1: I don’t think so. The announcers actually kept saying that the Lions had had problems in the kicking game all season. But who knows how true that really was, because the guy was 2 for 2 in that game.

Fan #2: (Nodding in agreement) Yeah, so if he just makes the field goal then I can see how the Cowboys, even with several minutes left, would have needed a lot to overcome a two-score deficit.

Fan #1: Actually it would still have been just a one-score deficit. The Lions were leading 20-17, so a field goal would have put them up by six, 23-17.

Fan #2: So the Cowboys could take the lead with just one touchdown?

Fan #1: Yeah, but that wouldn't have happened. Sure, the Cowboys had scored the prior two drives, but it was the momentum of that one horrible call that really changed everything. The Cowboys were suddenly fired up and the Lions were deflated.

Fan #2: I get that. Emotions can turn a game around. So let me guess what happened next. The Lions, knowing they were up by only three points, predictably played for the win and went for it on 4th and 1, but the pumped up Cowboys defense stuffed them.

Fan #1: Totally wrong. The Lions didn’t even go for it on 4th down. They first tried to draw the Cowboys offside, but it didn't work. Then they punted. But the punter shanked the kick for only 10 yards.

Fan #2: They didn't go for it? That seems stupid.

Fan #1: Yeah, maybe it was. But the fix was in so it hardly mattered at that point.

Fan #2: (Thinking to himself: How could the NFL, Jerry Jones, or Vegas get Jim Caldwell to not go for it on 4th down? and how could they get the Lions punter to shank a kick?) So the momentum swung and the Cowboys scored quick and easy immediately after that with a burst of new energy?

Fan #1: Not even close. The Cowboys drive stalled in Lions territory and they called timeout. They had to convert on a 4th and 6 to keep the drive alive or else the game was probably over. Then Romo had to scramble on 3rd and Goal from the 8-yard line before throwing a TD pass. If he doesn't complete that pass, the Cowboys kick a field goal and the game would have only been tied.

Fan #2: Was it a last-second touchdown pass?

Fan #1: No, there was 2:39 still left in the game.

Fan #2: Did the Lions have any timeouts left?

Fan #1: Two.

Fan #2: So they still had a chance then. Hmm. Then what happened?

Fan #1: Stafford fumbles in Lions territory, but somehow the rookie D-Lineman for the Cowboys fumbled it right back! Given this second opportunity, the Lions drive into Cowboys territory, but on 4th down that same D-Lineman redeems himself and strips Stafford and pretty much ends the game with 54 seconds left.

Fan #2: (Shaking his head) That’s a crazy finish.

Fan #1: (Shrugs) Yeah, I guess. But I’m sure it was all scripted just the way the NFL wanted it.

Fan #2: (Pauses a moment before answering) Well, it’s a pretty complicated script.

by Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for

1 comment:

  1. well done , funny stuff. Lions suck and Suh has female tendencies, to put it kindly


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