What were the Cowboys thinking? Why the officials got it right on Dallas' walk-off loss

Your instincts were correct if you felt like NFL officials were throwing more flags in 2021. Penalties ticked up to 13.88 per game during the regular season, a bit higher than in the 2020 season (13.14) but still way below where they were in 2019 (16.17) and 2018 (15.87).

That’s the longer-term context as you watch this year’s postseason games. It would be a surprise if we saw many penalty-filled games, and with any luck we’ll spend the next four weeks talking about the performance of players and coaches, not about the fouls that were called (or uncalled) against them.

But there are many rules-based twists and turns to consider beyond flags. In the 2020 AFC Championship Game, for instance, then-NFL senior vice president Al Riveron allowed a review for a nonreviewable play. Ultimately, he reversed a call that should not have been looked at in the game that decided who would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

We’ll have all of your officiating needs covered in this post, which will be updated as needed with rule explanations, important context and other officiating trends. Come along for the ride. (The most recent plays are at the top.)

Cowboys run out of time

49ers-Cowboys wild-card game, 0:14 remaining in fourth quarter

What happened: The clock ran out as the Cowboys attempted to snap the ball from the 49ers’ 24-yard line on the final play of the game.

How it was resolved: Referee Alex Kemp declared the game over, even after the snap was delayed for umpire Ramon George to adjust the spot.

Analysis: Kemp and George did their jobs. With 14 seconds remaining, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had run for 17 yards on a designed draw. Usually in that situation, NFL players are advised to hand the ball directly to the umpire or another official to expedite spotting of the ball. By rule, there can’t be a snap until an official has touched the ball to confirm and/or adjust the spot.

Instead, Prescott handed the ball to center Tyler Biadasz, who put the ball on the ground at about the 24-yard line and stood over it as the rest of the Cowboys’ offense assembled. George had to push through their line to get to the ball, using valuable seconds. The snap came with one second remaining, rendering Prescott’s spike meaningless.

This was entirely the fault of the Cowboys, from the risky play call with no timeouts remaining to Prescott’s inability to find an official to give the ball. Kemp and his crew did exactly what they would be expected to do.

Delay of game trying to catch the Niners off guard

49ers-Cowboys wild-card game, 13:26 remaining in fourth quarter

What happened: The Cowboys attempted to rush to the line with their punt team after converting a fake punt into a first down. Then, with 17 seconds left on the game clock, the Cowboys sent their offense onto the field for the first-down play.

How it was resolved: Umpire Ramon George stood near the center, preventing a snap. He moved into position with two seconds remaining on the play clock, leading to a delay of game for the Cowboys.

Analysis: As CBS analyst Tony Romo noted, the Cowboys were likely trying to catch the 49ers off guard for a second consecutive play. By keeping their punt team on the field and their offense on the sideline, they probably hoped to coerce the 49ers into calling a timeout.

It didn’t work, of course. And after they sent their offense onto the field, the Cowboys activated an NFL rule that requires officials to give the defense a reasonable chance to substitute. Here’s what the rule says: “If a substitution is made by the offense, the offense shall not be permitted to snap the ball until the defense has been permitted to respond with its substitutions.”

It was up to referee Alex Kemp to decide how long to give the 49ers to substitute. We could quibble about whether they needed 15 seconds to substitute, but the blame here goes to the Cowboys, who called for a high-risk play that would have netted a modest gain — at best.

Darden takes a late hit

Eagles-Buccaneers wild-card game, 12:01 remaining in the fourth quarter

What happened: Buccaneers kickoff returner Jaelon Darden brought back a kickoff 18 yards to the 22-yard line, and Darden took a late hit.

How it was resolved: The ball was moved back to the 10-yard line because of a holding call on the Buccaneers’ Rob Gronkowski, who was on the field as part of the hands team.

Analysis: Officials missed a late and blatant hit on Darden that was illegal for multiple reasons. Replays showed that Darden was tackled by Eagles safety Marcus Epps. Darden had started getting up, with his left knee still on the ground, when the Eagles’ KeeSean Johnson lowered his head and hit Darden’s helmet. The contact was forcible enough to knock Darden backward and onto his back, where he lay for several moments.

There is definitely an argument for holding back on some flags at the end of a blowout, but rules regarding player safety should always be enforced. Darden’s hit was illegal because it was late, and also because it was a textbook violation of the helmet rule, which prohibits players from lowering their helmet to initiate contact with an opponent.

A borderline roughing-the-passer call for a hit on Brady?

Eagles-Buccaneers wild-card game, 14:28 remaining in the first quarter

What happened: Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett hit Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady after he released a pass that fell incomplete.

How it was resolved: Referee Craig Wrolstad penalized Barnett for roughing the passer, moving the ball 15 yards downfield.

Analysis: Wrolstad’s regular-season crew threw the second-most flags for roughing the passer (12), and since the referee is usually the official that watches for that foul, it was reasonable to expect relevance on Sunday. As it turned out, we heard from Wrolstad within the first minute of the game — and not for good reason.

Barnett hit Brady below the waist, but above the knee. The NFL rulebook states: “A defender cannot initiate a roll or lunge and forcibly hit the passer in the knee area or below, even if he is being contacted by another player.”

This was a rule the NFL developed in part after Brady suffered a torn ACL on a low hit in 2008. But not even a charitable viewing of the contact would suggest it applied to this rule. The hit was legal, and if you have any doubt, you can note that Brady himself never appealed to Wrolstad for a flag.

Was this really roughing the passer?

Raiders-Bengals wild-card game, 1:51 remaining in the fourth quarter

What happened: Bengals defensive end Khalid Kareem made contact with Raiders quarterback Derek Carr after Carr released a 15-yard pass to running back Josh Jacobs.

How it was resolved: Referee Jerome Boger threw a flag for roughing the passer. The additional 15 yards gave the Raiders a 30-yard gain in total, putting the ball at the Bengals’ 35-yard line as the Raiders were driving for what could have been the game-tying (or winning) score.

Analysis: The NFL has moved in dramatic ways over the years to protect quarterbacks, creating rules that prohibit them from being hit forcibly in the head or neck area, as well as below the knee, when they are in the pocket or otherwise in a defenseless posture.

Boger did not specify why the flag was thrown, but at best, it appeared Kareem’s right shoulder or arm grazed Carr’s helmet. It would be up to Boger at that point to determine whether that contact was “forcible.” He is not tasked with taking into account the game situation, but you would like to see any call be obvious to the viewer — whether it is the fourth quarter of a playoff game or the first quarter in Week 1.

Carr did what he should have done; he made his case to Boger by snapping his head back and pointing to his helmet. It is always possible that another angle would show more forcible contact, but from what we could see on the NBC replay, it was not.

Errant whistle on Cincy touchdown

Raiders-Bengals wild-card game, 1:51 remaining in second quarter

What happened: Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow scrambled toward the right sideline on a third-down play from the Raiders’ 10-yard line. With the ball in the air, a whistle could clearly be heard on the NBC broadcast. Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd caught the pass for a touchdown.

How it was resolved: After a lengthy discussion among officials, led by referee Jerome Boger, the play was ruled a touchdown.

Analysis: Unless the whistle came from the crowd or someone other than one of the seven officials on the field, this should not have been a touchdown. There are two options here. Either the whistle was intended to rule Burrow out of bounds, or it was an inadvertent whistle. In either case, NFL rules require the play to be ended at the time of the whistle.

NFL rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(m) states: “[W]hen an official sounds the whistle erroneously while the ball is still in play, the ball becomes dead immediately.” In this case, the rule goes on to state: “If the ball is in player possession, the team in possession may elect to put the ball in play where it has been declared dead or to replay the down.”

The touchdown should not have counted, and the play should have been replayed. It is not reviewable. Players often stop playing when they hear a whistle, and it’s inherently unfair to allow post-whistle action to count.

A similar play occurred during a 2015 game between the Patriots and Bills. In that instance, referee Gene Steratore correctly halted the play, even as Patriots receiver Danny Amendola was running upfield, but erred in placing the ball at the spot where Amendola was when the whistle blew.

Postgame update: Walt Anderson, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating training and development, said in a pool report after the Bengals’ 26-19 win that Boger’s crew decided “the whistle for them on the field was blown after the receiver caught the ball.”

Suffice it to say, Boger’s judgment here does not line up with any of the available evidence. The whistle was audible on the broadcast well before Boyd caught the ball. But given the structure of the rules, this explanation is the only possible justification for allowing the touchdown.

It should be noted that Anderson didn’t say anything to indicate he supported (or rejected) the explanation. He appears simply to have passed along the on-field judgment on a play that wasn’t reviewable.

Still, it strains credulity for this to be the NFL’s official line. Whoever blew the whistle on the field knows when he did it. The players who appeared to stop before Boyd caught the ball knew when they heard it. Millions of television viewers knew when they heard it. While it might have been painful, the more credible explanation would have been something that confirmed — even in retrospect — that a rule was misapplied and that the entire sequence didn’t meet NFL standards.

Finally, the pool report did not include any discussion about why the NFL did not use its new video assist program to step in and correct the mistake. It’s true that erroneous whistles are not reviewable, but the video assist rule allows replay officials and the league’s officiating department in New York City to “advise the game officials on specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present, and/or to address game administration issues.”

To be clear: Addressing an erroneous whistle is an administrative issue. Deciding whether there was an erroneous whistle is a nonreviewable judgment call. The NFL had a way out here — telling Boger in real time that the down should be replayed — and it’s a mystery why it did not.

Raiders start drive at 2-yard line after returner steps out of bounds

Raiders-Bengals wild-card game, 1:18 remaining in first quarter

What happened: Raiders kickoff returner Peyton Barber grabbed the bouncing ball near the sideline and stepped out of bounds at the 2-yard line.

How it was resolved: Barber was ruled down at the 2, putting the Raiders in terrible field position for their third possession of the game.

Analysis: Barber was trying to capitalize on a little-known NFL rule in an effort to get the ball marked at the 40-yard line. What he wanted to do was step out of bounds and then touch the ball. When a ball touches a player after he has established himself out of bounds, the ball is ruled out of bounds at that point. Had Barber stepped out first, the Bengals would have been penalized for a kickoff out of bounds, and by rule, referee Jerome Boger would have spotted the ball the 40. But because Barber grabbed the ball before that, he was ruled to have run out of bounds with possession of the ball.

Multiple teams have tried to leverage that rule in recent years by deliberately stepping out of bounds and then reaching for the ball, most notably the Green Bay PackersRandall Cobb in 2012.

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