Jim Caldwell to blame in part for loss
Lions fans should be a bit mad at the referees for what happened as they tried to seal a win. They should be just as mad at their coach, though.
I used to be that guy.
When "my team" lost a game, it had to be because of the refs. It was never "my team's" fault they lost. My favorite players were never to blame. It was always the officials' fault. They always screwed the team I wanted to win, and when "my team" won, it was in spite of the officials being in some conspiracy to destroy "my team."
Then I started officiating high school football. I got into the rule book. I started going to classes with the Los Angeles unit of the California Football Officials Association. I got on the field and realized from the very first day how deeply I had underestimated the difficulty of officiating a football game. And this was high school where 75% of the plays are runs up the middle. Add to that a host of top-speed weapons, 350-pound linemen and a playbook featuring over a hundred plays?
Officiating football, particularly in the NFL, is incredibly difficult and the people who are doing it are well-trained with experience that runs through every level of the game.
The now-infamous pass interference call that became a non-call in the Lions-Cowboys game is all anyone on the losing side wants to talk about. No doubt, the optics of it were bad. Flags get picked up all the time. I've thrown flags that, in communication with the other officials on my team, get tossed aside due to more information and better perspective. This one was egregious because the referee announced the penalty and enforcement before the officials changed their minds. It looked awful.
What people don't seem to want to talk about is the fact that the receiver beat his man on the play...and quarterback Matthew Stafford made a bad throw. Why didn't he lead the receiver? Why did he look at the defender's backside and throw it there? Because he was looking to get bailed out by the referees. He had nowhere else to go and knew if he threw it at the defender, he could get a lucky pass interference call. And he got it...before he didn't.
The officials are not there to bail you out of a bad play. They are there to administer the game and maintain fairness.
Whichever way that play went, the game would not be decided by that call. And the Lions didn't lose because of an offensive hold that wasn't called on the Cowboys' ensuing drive, either, or a stomp by a Dallas lineman.
The Lions lost because they simply did not make the key plays they needed to win the game. They missed too many tackles, they earned too many penalties, they dropped too many balls. Stafford lost two fumbles and threw an interception. Sam Martin shanked a punt for 10 yards. The offense mustered only three second-half points. A late hit handed the Cowboys 15 free yards.
That is why they lost the game.
A well-prepared team that effectively executes a smart game plan wins virtually every game it plays no matter what the officials do on the field. The Lions were not that team. Neither were the Cowboys, frankly. But somebody had to win.
When I challenged folks on Twitter to look past the calls of the officials, one woman said the NFL is fixed and the officiating stinks.
The public thinks all you need is good eyesight to be an official. They ignore the fact that from their living rooms they have a bird's eye view with 18 camera angles and close-ups in hi-def. They don't understand that in replay you get to focus on exactly where the ball is going, slow it down, speed it up and reverse it. They also don't understand all of the rules and mechanics that go into being an official, all of the years of watching game tape and adjusting to different positions. They have no idea about the officials camps and study groups these men (and soon women) have been a part of for over a decade.
They have absolutely no idea how incredibly difficult it is to be a football official in the NFL. Most fans don't know the rules (heck, many football writers don't know the rules). They are oblivious to the hours of preparation these men put in for days leading up to that game. Officiating in the NFL is so difficult that these people who have been doing it for decades still make mistakes.
Fans have no idea how difficult it is to be a football official. They have no idea.
What they also don't understand is how tough it can be to work with six other guys you haven't seen much all season. Playoff crews are put together from the best-performing officials throughout the season. It's like the Pro Bowl for referees: Guys from across the League put on a team and after a week of "practice" they're expected to go out and perform at a high level. You've seen the level of defense in the Pro Bowls - that's what you get when you throw guys together who aren't used to playing with one another. Same thing goes for the officials in the playoffs. The system that exists will create more mistakes - whether it's the best available system is something Mike Pereira questioned Sunday night.
Did the officials screw up? Yep. At best there was a mechanics breakdown - that call should not have been announced then overturned. I won't say whether they ultimately got the call right or wrong - I'll leave that to other pundits and the NFL to determine.
But what that screw-up didn't do was determine the outcome of the game: The players and coaches did that all themselves.
Lions fans want to blame the third team on the field - the guys in the stripes - for another Detroit playoff loss. They're wrong. The officials didn't have a perfect game, but the Lions were far from it. Maybe they should demand better preparation from the coaching staff and the players of "their team" next year - lock up a home game and play that game well. And leave the referees alone - their job is difficult and thankless enough as it is.