ARLINGTON, Texas — Weren’t all these officiating issues supposed to be resolved once the lockout ended, and the NFL said goodbye to the replacement referees?
Law and order was supposed to be restored in October when the Mike Careys, Ed Hochulis and Gene Steratores returned to the field with their crews. No more chippiness, no more bad calls, no more chaos. Right?
What a mess Sunday.
More photos below.
Hochuli’s crew assessed 21 penalties for 231 yards in the Browns-Cowboys game — the most yardage doled out by a non-replacement officiating crew this season. But, for a change, the Cowboys were the beneficiaries of some suspect officiating in a 23-20 overtime win over the Cleveland Browns.
The Cowboys rank second in the NFL in penalties this season with 83 for 590 yards. Those flags contributed mightily to their disappointing 3-5 start to the season.
It was more of the same Sunday for the Cowboys with nine penalties for 92 yards against Cleveland. But the Browns were flagged a season-high 12 penalties for 129 yards. A staggering 10 of those penalties gave the Cowboys first downs.
Let’s focus on two officiating calls, actually one flag and one non-call.
The Browns viewed them as blunders, and both factored heavily into the Cowboys’ sudden November playoff push.
The flag came on a hit by safety T.J. Ward on Kevin Ogletree in the closing minute of regulation, and the non-call came on a fumble by Miles Austin in overtime. Both appeared to be legal “football plays” on television replays, but both went the other way against the Browns.
The Browns took a 20-17 lead on a touchdown pass to Ben Watson with 1:07 left in regulation. Then, in a second-and-6 situation at the Cowboys 24, Tony Romo threw a deep out a bit behind Kevin Ogletree. He leaned into the pass just as Ward arrived with a frontal shoulder-to-shoulder pad hit on the Cowboys wideout.
Ogletree went down, and the flags flew. Hochuli made two attempts to describe what his crew deemed as an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, first calling it a helmet-to-helmet hit of a defenseless player and then scaling back to a helmet hit of a defenseless player.
But replays showed helmets were not involved in the hit directly in front of the Cleveland bench. That drew Browns coach Pat Shurmur’s sideline ire.
The ensuing 15-yard penalty moved the Cowboys to their 39 and ignited their drive to score the tying field goal in the closing seconds of regulation. The drive also was aided by a 35-yard pass interference penalty by Sheldon Brown on a bomb to Dwayne Harris.
In overtime, a Harris punt return of 20 yards moved the Cowboys to the Cleveland 48. On the third play of the drive at the Cleveland 32, Romo threw a slant pass to Miles Austin, which he corralled, took two steps for a legal catch, then had the ball poked out of his hands by Brown for a fumble.
But officials on the field quickly ruled the pass an incompletion, allowing the Cowboys to retain possession of the football. Shurmur called a timeout at that point, hoping for a review. Hochuli went to the replay machine on the sideline but never stuck his head under the hood, conferred with the replay coordinator, then returned to the field to say the play was not reviewable.
Four plays later, the Cowboys were celebrating a victory.
The Cowboys scored four times in regulation and each drive was aided by a major penalty, usually against a defensive back. But that came as no real surprise. The Browns were forced to play the game without their top two corners because of injury, then lost their nickel corner Buster Skrine in the fourth quarter with a concussion.
The collection of Cleveland’s backup defensive backs wound up with seven penalties for 87 yards in a futile effort to contain Dez Bryant, Austin and Jason Witten. Romo wound up passing for 313 yards.
The Cowboys didn’t have a great day, not when your franchise quarterback gets sacked seven times for 56 yards. The Browns also didn’t have a great day, blowing a 13-0 halftime lead in falling to 2-8.
But the Hochuli crew had the worst day of all. The officials lost control of the game, something that wasn’t supposed to happen once the lockout ended.
But the Cowboys aren’t complaining. They’re back in playoff contention. They’ll take any and all the help they can get at this point.
Rick Gosselin is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.