The Dallas Cowboys lined up in spread formation on 3rd-and-2 from their own 34-yard line. With just under two minutes to play, it had been a very humbling first half of Sunday night football. The Detroit Lions were up 14-0, but it was worse than that. A Dallas team that prides itself on being more physical than its opponents was getting pushed around.
In four first-half drives the Dallas offense had run just 23 plays for 72 total yards. More than 28 minutes of game clock had run, and Dallas had yet to take a snap in Detroit territory. Quarterback Tony Romo had been sacked three times. NFL rushing champ DeMarco Murray had been limited to just seven carries. A ferocious Detroit front seven was controlling this game.
The Cowboys needed this third-down play. They couldn’t end the half with five punts in five possessions. They needed some points. Some evidence on the scoreboard that they could actually move the ball against this dominating Detroit defense. Empty backfield. Lions showing pressure. Two yards to go for a fresh set of downs and a chance – nothing more, just a chance – to keep the rout at bay.
And the refs totally blew it.
At the snap, Detroit cornerback Cassius Vaughn shoved Dallas wide receiver Terrance Williams into linebacker Tahir Whitehead, who was trying to cover tight end Jason Witten. Romo-to-Witten was complete for four yards and a first down, but the officials called offensive pass interference on Williams. Awful call, obvious to all who saw it.
Fox color commentator Troy Aikman, on seeing the replay:
"“It doesn’t to me look like there should have been anything.”"
Fox rules analyst Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former Vice President of Officiating, was asked for his take:
"“(Williams) was chucked by the defender into the contact. I think that’s one I would like to let go.”"
Now instead of first down and a sliver of hope, the Dallas offense backed up to its own 24-yard line to try and convert a 3rd-and-12. The Lions pass rushers could pin their ears back, and Romo would need time – seconds – to let a play develop and get the ball down field. Disaster. Playoff games aren’t supposed to be decided this way.
If Dallas failed to convert, the Lions would get the ball back with almost two minutes on the clock to add to their lead. Detroit would also get the ball to start the second half. The score was already 14-0. With another Dallas punt, and Detroit getting the next two possessions, how high could they run it up? 20-0? 24-0? 28-0, before the Cowboys offense saw the ball again?
After a four-year playoff drought, an improbable 12-win season and a perfect December, this game and this season were slipping away… Because the refs blew it.
Fortunately for Cowboys fans, they root for a team of men. Men who make plays, instead of excuses. Men who, in the oft-repeated mantra of head coach Jason Garrett, perform their best regardless of circumstances.
So on 3rd-and-12, Williams beat Vaughn on a dig route and Romo beat the Detroit blitz. Romo hit Williams in stride 14 yards downfield, and Williams didn’t stop running until he found the end zone. Dallas was still down 14-7, but alive and believing. An officiating disaster had been averted by men making plays.
The officiating crew would miss other calls in this contest. Football is a fast game. Officials are really pretty good at keeping up with it, but they’re also human. Officials miss calls in every game. A good team needs men who can battle past that adversity and find a way to win. The Cowboys have those men, and they showed it Sunday night. The Lions, who also faced some adversity, didn’t.
And that’s all that really needs to be said about the officiating in this game.
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