Plenty of Historical No-Calls ; Ref Confusion a BIG Problem


no call


By Ben Cosman

There was a flag, and then there wasn’t.

With roughly eight minutes left in the 4th quarter of Sunday’s Cowboys-Lions Wild Card matchup, Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens was called for pass interference on a Lions’ 3rd-and-1 while defending Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

After a moment, though, the referees reversed the call, explaining later that the head linesman — who felt he had a better view and that Hitchens was “face guarding” — had overruled the back judge. The Lions failed to draw the Cowboys offside on 4th-and-1 and punted. Dallas took the lead with a touchdown on the subsequent drive and never relinquished.

Cue the conspiracy theorists. The NFL wanted to line up a Cowboys-Packers showdown next week. It all stemmed from a strange incident on a party bus this August with the VP of officiating. It was all Chris Christie’s fault.

Of course, this wasn’t the first no-call in a big game and it won’t be the last. Rather, it joins a pantheon of controversial non-calls in sports. Here are just a few …
Brett Hull in the crease, Sabres vs. Stars (1999)

Hull’s goal in triple-overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals ended the series, giving the Stars the title. The only trouble: His skate was in the goalie’s crease before the puck was. This was before the NHL eliminated the rule that prohibited players from entering the crease before the puck. Hull’s goal was ruled good on a technicality (he maintained control of the puck, referees said), but don’t mention that in Buffalo.
Jordan’s push-off, Bulls vs. Jazz (1998)

The 1998 NBA Finals ended on a jump shot from Michael Jordan in Game 6. The problem: Jordan maybe, kinda/sorta pushed off on Byron Russell before hitting the game-winner. The referees didn’t call it and the series was over. Hey — even Jordan, the NBA’s best-ever, needs a helping hand sometimes.
Hand of God, Argentina vs. England (1986)

Almost no explanation necessary: Argentina’s first goal in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England came from Diego Maradona, with a little help from, in the words of Maradona, “the hand of God.” And, of course, Maradona’s own left hand.
Jorge Orta safe at first, Cardinals vs. Royals (1985)

In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 (these calls always seem to come in Game 6, don’t they?), Orta led off for the Royals and grounded out to first. Except he wasn’t called out. The Royals came back to win that game, 2-1, and took the series in the next game.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Which ones were your favorites (or least favorites)?


Ben Cosman is a Sports on Earth contributor and writer for’s Cut4. You can follow him on Twitter: @bencosman.


confused refs


It wasn’t necessarily the non-call itself that was a problem during the Lions-Cowboys game; it was the way things were handled after the flag was thrown.

Enough already.

There was no widespread conspiracy to get the Cowboys into the second round of the NFL playoffs. The game wasn’t “fixed” as many of you tweeted me and even some of my friends texted me.

That doesn’t mean what happened on Sunday in Dallas on the picked-up pass interference flag was OK. It was a comedy of errors that led to a really poor conclusion.

By now you’ve very likely seen the play or have at least heard about the situation. Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens was in man to man coverage on Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew on a third-and-one play in which the Lions had the ball on the Cowboys side of the field a few minutes into the fourth quarter, holding on to a 20-17 lead.

I was the sideline reporter for Westwood One’s national radio coverage of the game and was about 25 feet away from Hitchens and Pettigrew on the play. From my vantage point on the Cowboys sideline at about the 25-yard line I didn’t think it was pass interference. Face guarding is not a penalty in the NFL and I didn’t really see much contact. In fact, I thought Pettigrew could have done a better job coming back to the ball into Hitchens to draw the foul, but that might be easier said than done if you are 270 lbs.

The initial reaction on the Cowboys sideline was a happy one that Hitchens had made the play. When they saw the back judge throw the flag they were incredulous. The entire sideline erupted, including Dez Bryant, who came out onto the field without his helmet on to dispute the call. More on that in a moment.

The Cowboys reaction tells you that this was not the no-brainer pass interference penalty that some are making it out to be. Yes, they are of course extremely biased, but players and coaches aren’t stupid either. They don’t vociferously argue obvious calls. At least not often. Having watched the video a few times now, I do think it was pass interference when Hitchens used his hand to push Pettigrew’s shoulder and that it should have been called, but I’ve seen worse pass interference judgment calls this season. Much worse.

The real problem I have is the way in which everything was handled after the flag was thrown. That’s where the mistakes were made and where I believe there is a flaw in the NFL’s construction of these playoff crews.

Referee Pete Morelli got the call from the back judge and made the announcement. Then they elected to pick up the flag (after way too long of a deliberation), evidently based on the head linesmen’s view of what happened on the play, but Morelli never explained what was going on.

It’s very important to note that in the playoffs the officiating crews are “all-star” groups, meaning it is not the same group of men that work together all season. Instead, individual officials are evaluated on their performance over the course of the season and they land a particular playoff assignment based upon that. Anybody that has ever been in any type of setting like that as a player can tell you that what you gain in terms of individual talent you often lose from a continuity and chemistry standpoint. Officiating is no different.

The level of unfamiliarity exhibited Sunday among the refs is not good and I believe a big reason for what happened on the fateful play. That would not happen if Morelli was with his season-long crew.

The head linesman, who evidently overruled the back judge, should have conferenced with the back judge immediately after the flag was thrown and before Morelli announced anything. Why he didn’t I have no idea, and that is the biggest mistake that occurred. Morelli himself admitted that after the game to the pool reporter. Frankly, it is inexplicable and inexcusable.

Morelli not explaining the reasoning behind picking up the flag just compounded the mistake and confusion. Many fans were critical of Ed Hochuli’s lengthy explanations in the Cardinals vs. Panthers game on Saturday, but I think everybody would agree that some explanation is better than none.

To those that insist it was foul play, I would say that any conspirators would have to be a lot more subtle. Like not calling a questionable hold on tight end Jason Witten on DeMarco Murray’s touchdown run early in the third quarter with the Cowboys down ten points and desperately needing a score and momentum at that point. They could have easily let that go. They wouldn’t wait a minute and then overturn a call on one of the biggest plays in the game without offering any explanation. Way too obvious.

As far as Dez Bryant being on the field without a helmet, this is where my vantage point on the sideline comes in handy. Technically, Bryant should have been flagged. Practically, I see dozens of instances each game such as coaches way off the sidelines onto the field or players with their helmets off or inadvertently touching the refs that go uncalled all the time. The officials used their discretion in those instances and I believe it was the side judge that came in and ushered Bryant back to the sideline. Was Bryant given a longer leash than others might be? Perhaps, but anyone focusing on Bryant or a potential conspiracy is missing the point.

The problem is the construction of these crews and the mistakes that can lead to. What’s scary is that this isn’t going to change for the remainder of the postseason. It’s entirely “all-star” crews going forward which means the potential for another blunder like this exists.

Let’s all hope that’s not the case and that the league decides to go with the highest ranked overall regular season crews next season and into the future. The stakes are too high not to.

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