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The anatomy of an overturned call

There is a well-defined process to overturning a call

This past weekend, the Lions-Cowboys playoff game was marked by the crew picking up a pass interference flag against the Lions, setting off a huge uproar.   Football officials have a set protocol that occurs before changing a call.

How do officials approach their partners and get them to change a call that they think is a mistake?   If an official thinks another official threw his flag in error, he lets the play continue, and once the ball is dead he approaches the calling official and asks him what he saw.   The calling official tells his partners what he has.   He’ll then ask his crew-mates what they saw  â€” knowing that if his partners are questioning his call they have a very good reason to do so.   Once the calling official has the information from his partners it is up to him to either pick up the flag or let the call stand.

An official has to have a great deal of confidence (some call it ego) to make the tough call, but he also has to have enough confidence to set his ego aside and allow a partner to question him and possibly convince him to pick up the flag.   This mechanic is also used for when a member of the crew thinks the down is wrong, there is an incorrect penalty enforcement, or a rule is being misapplied.

Unless the referee is in on the original call, he does not intervene in the conference.   The only time the referee intervenes is if his crew-mates cannot agree and he has to break the tie.

What was so strange about the overturned pass interference call during the wild card game was the change in call happened after referee Pete Morelli announced the foul and enforcement.   Why did it take so long for the conference to happen?   Why did Morelli announce the foul, then the conference, then the overturn?   Why didn’t someone call Morelli on the wireless communications system and tell him, “Hold it!   We’re talking it over down here.”

The merits of the call can and will be debated, and the way the conference went down was kind of ragged, but the officials did follow the traditional protocol for over turning a call.


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Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"

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23 thoughts on “The anatomy of an overturned call

  1. I don’t remember flags being picked up at all, ever, before the last season or two. Is this getting more common or was I just not paying enough attention?

  2. I have seen a number of fouls called that were picked up AFTER a conference, but not before which happened in the Cowboys game. It boggles my mind why they would reverse the call after the penalty enforcement considering the officials had a great deal of opportunity to stop Morelli from making the annoucement and futher discuss the penalty. In my opinion, this was extremely poor officiating. Unforunately, a crew sinks or swims together, so saying that it is the BJ’s or the HL’s fault is a moot point.

    Ironically, I have been a Dallas Cowboys fan since childhood and obviously I am glad they won, but I am also a veteran high school football official and know that it was blatant defensive pass interference. I am not sure if any members of the officiating crew were up for a possible Super Bowl assignment, but if they were, they won’t be now.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it is my understanding that the officials assigned to the wild card games are those judged to be the 8th, 9th, 10th, or 11th best at their respective positions during the season. So Morelli (and the rest of that crew) were actually ranked somewhere from 8 to 11 and thus had no chance of working the Super Bowl.

  4. I would just like to know from all the cowboy-fans out there; do you feel ANY enjoyment about the outcome of the game from yesterday? The reason I ask is because I’m trying to determine if ANY DALLAS fans out there have even the slightest bit of dignity and/or morality. If the rolls were reversed, I know that I (as a Lions fan) would not feel the slightest bit of satisfaction KNOWING that the ONLY reason the game was ‘won’ was BECAUSE of the WORST call/no-call/officiating EVER viewed by the majority of the people whom had to bear that monstrosity of a “NFL Playoff Game.” It’s a SAD day for the game as a whole, and, at the VERY LEAST, the NFL should MAKE SURE that those “officials” NEVER set foot on a football field bearing those zebra stripes ever again. I would love to wish Dallas ‘Good Luck’ in Green Bay, but, in my eyes, the morally-sound Cowboy players (if any) should simply forfeit the game; knowing that they are NOT deserving of another playoff game. Lastly, does ANYONE here know if the Refs made more $ off of Jerry, or off of their bets on Dallas to win?? Thanks to all for any answers given..

  5. I agree with the above comments regarding SB assignment, I have a hard time imagining Blandino assigning Morelli to the SB, with all of the questions and nonsense that would entail. It sucks for Morelli because I really did believe he has had a great year, but I just don’t see the NFL wanting to bring this back up during the biggest week of the NFL year.

    I also think Pereira is right, “all-star” crews just don’t work. For a few years USA Curling (bear with me) tried to put all-stars on it’s national team. The best Skip, the best Vice, etc. regardless of which team they played on for the year would be thrown together to make an “all-star” team. The experiment failed miserably, for the same reason it doesn’t work in officiating – Teamwork and communication is something that’s learned after working together and not something you can force. I understand the idea behind it, but I hope this concept goes away and soon.

    Mingusal – It was discussed on a separate thread but basically the SB officials will work either the wildcard or divisional rounds before officiating in the SB. That’s why a lot of folks thought Morelli was a probably going to be the one.

    Mr. Tollzien – Slow your roll boss. Yes, it was a really bad sequence of events and with the addition of the no USLC on Bryant (entering the field of play without a helmet), it reflects poorly on NFL officiating. I get it, you’re angry and you’ve ever right to be. I was pretty pissed off at the officiating during SB XL, and hate the Steelers to this day, but to say it was the worst officiating “EVER” and then to accuse officials of being paid of or betting… Well to paraphrase ESPN? Come On Man.

  6. The most highly visible franchise in the world, that brings a windfall to corporate sponsors, it appears to be the team of destiny, corporate america is chopping at the bit for the Cowboys to make it to the Super Bowl, so that Romo can remove the choke perception from his resume and that Jerry did it his way. There is no way in he’ll will Jerry be denied, therefore the refs will make sure the Cowboys make it. Just like the tuck rule helped the Patriots during the 9/11 crisis, to the Super Bowl.

  7. Unfortunately, it’s incidents like this one that serve to give credence to concerns about the possible dishonesty of NFL officials. Taking back a correct call, after the penalty has been announced, with little or no explanation, is bound to give rise to some uncomfortable questions. And for damn good reason. Especially when that action basically saves the playoff life of a team that is unquestionably among the teams most favored by the league and its broadcasters.

    Even if, like me, you don’t buy any grand conspiracy theories, it sure doesn’t stretch credibility much to believe that the refs may have been swayed by 90,000 screaming fans, the loud objections of star players, and the glamor, mystique, and history of “America’s Team” in their perceptions and decisions over which of the teams involved was or was not more likely to commit penalties late in a playoff game. Would it be the team that’s always on prime-time TV, with the gargantuan stadium, the bigger-than-life owner, the high ratings, and the long playoff history, or would it be the perpetual sad sack team, from a poor and loathed city, with a rep for dirty play, that is rarely seen on national TV? How much would it take to talk a ref in that situation out of a difficult (but correct) call that could seal the playoff fate of the favored, glamorous, home team?

    Apparently, not much.

  8. It’s been said enough times here – the div round refs are the finalists for the super bowl. It’s been that way for a while….

  9. You degrade this website by trying to justify these officials actions. The officials need to come out and state they blew the call. To err is human and to admit the mistake is the only course of action! This play made the national news tonight as ‘The worst call ever!”

  10. It was simple mistakes by officials who have no business working in the NFL. The problem perpetuates itself, when those ingrained continue to hire new officials because of who they are related to, or who in the office has “touched” them. Truly, it does not matter whether one can officiate well, or not. If the league wants you, if a relative wants you, you are in. There is alot of truth in the statement “Skin or kin, and you’re in.”

  11. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Call it misguided pride and poor judgement by an “all-star” crew that should have known the steps necessary to ensure a correct call in such a pivotal contest. Call it vapor-lock when a helmet-less Bryant bolted onto the field and was not flagged for unsportsmanlike. I just ask – if the NFL is still a viable enterprise in six years – when the current union contract expires in 2020, that the NFL Officials decide to bargain IN concepts like “integrity” and “competency.” Because, from my vantage, they are certainly lacking within the terms of the 2012 agreement.

  12. I ditto “Sooth” about “skin or kin.” Of course now it;s gender as well. In addition, does ANYONE recall all the anti-replacement ranting only 2 short years ago about the WORST call ever (just see youtube video titles if you don’t believe me)? Yet that had ZERO playoff implications. The officials union (like everyone worthless union) will claim they deserve the HUGE pay raises they got (plus the $1.2 MILLION the NFL saved by using replacements that was put into their retirement fund), AND the pay for the 3 games they didn’t even work that season, yet not call out the terrible calls since the lockout ended. Anyone remember a full 1 minute and 20 seconds running off the game clock in SF with the REGULAR officials in 2012 during a MEASUREMENT and no one caught it! Not even replay. Broken horn here, but get some of those young, ready-to-work NFL replacements back out there!
    I still really like Morelli. The flag pick up was the fault of H and B.

  13. The referee for the super bowl does not come from the wild car
    D games anymore so this will not have any effect on who is selected for the super bowl.

  14. The official who failed to flag Bryant in the playoff game for coming onto the field helmetless and acting like a fool was clearly afraid of screwing Bryant again, as he did in the last week of the regular season when he called Bryant’s TD catch in the end zone, incomplete. It was clear that it was a catch and was not a difficult call at all, and was reversed on replay. This official clearly remembered his prior major gaffe, and instead of doing the correct thing and flagging the foul here, panicked and failed to do his job. No surprise….another legacy who has no business at this level, screwing up.

  15. We all expect bad calls from nfl refs. We should never have a correct call overturned. The head linesman who overruled should be fired immediately. Apparently he was able to see a play 15-18 yards away while MISSING defensive holding 5 yards away on the same play. Has he been investigated?.

  16. If the NFL wanted true more consistent in its calls they would adopt a process comparable to college where every play is reviewed.
    The Dez Bryant non call was the responsibility of every official on the field.

    When was the last time a pass interference penalty reversed? When was the last time a defensive holding penalty
    was reversed?
    I do not believe the officiating is corrupt, just incompetent and working with rules that time and technology have passed them bye;

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