September 13, 2010

Usual Goat Becomes Sunday’s Great

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A little bump on the drive with time winding down? Let them play. A slightly overzealous slide tackle in stoppage time? Let it go. Too much contact from the corner on a desperation heave? Let the game be decided on the field.

For some reason, at the end of the game, we as sports fans ask the referees to swallow their whistles. Down the stretch, apparently, rules should no longer apply.

On Sunday night, though, one official’s dirty laundry changed the course of the NFL’s most storied rivalry, and possibly the league’s 2010 season. Alright, so it’s just Week 1 and the Cowboys and Redskins will go at it at least one more time before it’s all said and done. But considering that last year’s NFC East had to be decided by a tiebreaker, one win (or loss) can mean a lot over the course of a 16-game schedule.

With three seconds left on the clock and Dallas stalled on Washington’s 13-yard line, Tony Romo stepped up in the pocket, stumbled to his right and lobbed a pass towards the endzone. Roy Williams hauled in what appeared to be the game winning score as time expired, sparking a Cowboys dogpile by the back pylon. Mean­while, a yellow flag was thrown behind the line of scrimmage.

As Brian Orakpo came hard on a speed rush from the outside, Cowboys right tackle Alex Barron wrapped his arm around the Redskin linebacker’s neck. Unfolding directly in front of the side judge, the call was easy to make: “holding, on the offense.”

After the game Romo said, “I thought we had won.”

Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips was initially confused, too. “I’ve never seen that happen, where you score a touchdown and you get a penalty and the game is over.”

Even though Phillips has been a mainstay among the NFL coaching ranks since 1976, his statement doesn’t come as a surprise. For a referee, when a game is on the line, doing nothing and fading from the spotlight is much easier than making a bold move and potentially facing the collective wrath of a team, fanbase or entire sport.

Being the athletic world’s most common scapegoat isn’t an easy job. But luckily for the Redskins and the league, the officials in Landover, Md., on Sunday night were up to the task. With the Jim Joyce-Armando Galarraga mess and multiple World Cup gaffes directly in the sporting world’s rear-view mirror, decisively good calls are particularly refreshing –– especially when they come in pairs.

Just hours before Dallas and Washington kicked off, the Lions and Bears also had their Week 1 fates sealed by a level-headed official late in the fourth quarter.

With 31 ticks left in the game, Shaun Hill seemed to connect with Calvin Johnson for a touchdown that would have likely given Detroit its first road victory since Oct. 28, 2007. During the course of Johnson’s near-catch, though, he fell to the ground and regained his footing in one smooth motion. As he bounced off the turf, the ball came loose from his grip. On the field, the pass was ruled incomplete. Replays confirmed the initial decision.

The rule, as it stands, holds that the receiver must maintain control of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch. Unfortunately for the Lions, it seems that Johnson tried to hop up to celebrate too quickly. Bouncing back off the ground was no doubt still part of the process of the catch. Had he been content with falling over and not tried to maintain his footing, Detroit would likely be sitting at 1-0 for the first time since 2007. Instead the Lions’ losing streak is now at seven games.

You might not like the rule, but you have to like the ruling. By the books, the officials made the right call in Chicago just as they did in Landover, Md.

The rules were set out ahead of time and enforced the same way from kickoff to the final horn. As we always demand, the games were decided on the field. And on Sunday, the referees made sure that the playing field was level.

Original Author: Sam Aleinikoff