Gil LeBreton

Cowboys on picked-up flag: What interference call?

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @gillebreton

Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Hitchens (59) gets hit in the back by a pass to Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew (87) in the 4th quarter. Interference was initially called, but the penalty flag was picked up and waved off by officials.
Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Hitchens (59) gets hit in the back by a pass to Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew (87) in the 4th quarter. Interference was initially called, but the penalty flag was picked up and waved off by officials. Star-Telegram

Pass interference? What pass interference?

While America howled and the Cowboys celebrated, Dallas coach Jason Garrett was asked after the game how he saw NFL officiating’s most awkwardly executed never-mind call of the season.

“I saw it,” Garrett said, “like the three guys around the play saw it — not like the guy who was 50 yards away.”

It was a cheeky answer, especially coming from the chronically above-the-fray Garrett. After all, a TV audience of around 30 million had seen replay after replay of the fourth-quarter attempted catch by the Detroit Lions’ Brandon Pettigrew — a bitterly critical play that helped the Cowboys to a 24-20 victory.

Among those watching was Fox replay analyst Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former vice president of officiating. When asked on air about the original call of pass interference on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens, Pereira didn’t equivocate.

“The key is looking to see if the defender is playing the ball,” he said. “If he’s not and there is contact, as the receiver reaches back for the ball, it is going to be on the defense. That’s pass interference.”

Yet, 30 or more seconds later, there was referee Pete Morelli waving off the penalty.

“The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference,” Morelli told pool reporter Todd Archer after the final whistle. “We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference.”

The decidedly pro-Cowboys audience of 91,410 at AT&T Stadium roared its approval of Morelli’s explanation.

At the same instant, more or less, the Internet self-combusted.

“Fix!” went the most common cry on social media.

The Cowboys being the Cowboys, commenters either loved the sudden fortuitous turn of events — or they voiced their utter outrage, suggesting that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had phoned in the flag reversal from his neighborhood Buffalo Wild Wings.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Lions center Dominic Raiola. “I’ve never seen a PI overturned.

“I don’t know who overturned it. It looked pretty cut-and-dry.”

The head linesman, a 15-year NFL official named Jerry Bergman, was the one who persuaded Morelli to pick up the flag.

The original call of interference, however, did look cut-and-dry, even if you didn’t realize that the NFL, unlike college football, has no rule against face-guarding — a defender using his hands and arms to obstruct the view of the intended pass receiver.

You can face-guard to defend a pass in the NFL, it seems, as long as no contact is made.

But Hitchens did make contact with Pettigrew on the critical third-down play. Replays showed that he first grabbed the tight end’s jersey, and then as Matthew Stafford’s pass was underthrown, the linebacker appeared to push Pettigrew backward. As the receiver reached for the ball, Hitchens made contact with Pettigrew’s chest. Hitchens quickly raised his arms, like a basketball player after a foul call, but the contact had already taken place.

“The guy that had the best angle also was the back judge that made the call,” Fox’s Pereira noted.

Hitchens did not answer questions from the media after the game. But Garrett’s abrupt response and owner Jerry Jones’ predictable serpentine answer — “That was a judgment call” — had already spoken for him.

Game over. The Cowboys were already fielding questions about the Packers.

Pettigrew was asked if he got an explanation from the officials about the noncall.

“I did not get an explanation,” he said. “I thought it was ridiculous, to be honest.

“He ran through me, pretty much, trying to get back to the ball. To me, it was obvious.”

Denied a first down at the Cowboys’ 25-yard line, the Lions ended up punting, and Sam Martin shanked the kick, which sailed only 10 yards. The Cowboys launched their winning touchdown drive from there.

They didn’t need the officials’ help, you could argue. But the fact that they so obviously did get it, as America watched and mostly howled, put a distinct taint on the Cowboys’ first playoff victory in five years.

Which is a shame, really, because Garrett’s team is good enough not to need any heavenly intervention. They had swung the game’s momentum in their favor even before the interference noncall.

But it’s been that kind of season. From backup opposing quarterbacks, to timely slumps from otherwise dangerous foes, to friendly road trips, to Tony Romo’s healing back, things keep falling into place for the Cowboys.

Next week comes another place, Lambeau Field.

Interference? What interference?

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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