Cowboys Versus the Refs

Dallas Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy
Dallas Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 18 - The Dallas Cowboys weren't happy with the officiating in their 25-22 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. And they were not shy when talking about it.

"We've got to keep battling with everybody, not just the other team, if you catch my drift," linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said after the game.

"We'll play against 11 and the others if we have to. I've become accustomed to it, honestly," added Dak Prescott.

"Playing against the refs again, like usual," added edge rusher Randy Gregory. "It seems like an every-week occurrence."

All of those quotes come from the Cowboys website, which is telling: official team sites tend to tamp down storylines that coaches or senior brass don't want fans to hear, so the players' complaints appear to have the Jerry Jones Seal of Approval (which is the ring left on a mahogany desk by a highball glass).

So much for only focusing upon the things you can control, taking accountability for losses, and all that old-fashioned stuff. But that's not what we are here to talk about today.

The Cowboys are the most penalized team in the NFL with 122 total fouls. They rank second to the Raiders with 1,059 penalty yards. The Cowboys were flagged 10 times for 88 yards in the Cardinals loss, their fourth double-digit-penalty game of the season, including their 16-penalty, 166-yard Thanksgiving Flag Festival against the Raiders.

The Cowboys are tied for second in the NFL with 29 offensive holding penalties; the Vikings lead the league with 30, while the Ravens have also committed 29. They have been flagged for unnecessary roughness 10 times, second only to the Bears with 11. They're tied with several teams for the league lead with seven neutral zone infractions and tied for fourth overall with seven defensive offsides fouls. Oddly enough, their 10 defensive pass interference penalties are a middle-of-the-pack figure: based on the Thanksgiving game, you'd be forgiven for thinking Anthony Brown alone had 10 DPI fouls.

So the Cowboys have a legitimate beef with the refs, right? Not really: they have also benefited from 108 penalties, the highest total in the NFL. The Cowboys' -116-yard net penalty differential is the ninth-worst in the NFL: low, but hardly worth a postgame gripe-a-thon.

Cowboys games, it turns out, are often over-officiated. The crews themselves do not seem to be the culprit. The Cowboys have drawn Scott Novak's crew, who are among the league's most liberal penalizers, twice this season, including on Sunday. But they also drew Bill Vinovich and the NFL's stingiest officiating team twice. They have drawn Shaun Hochuli's hallucinogenic performance artists twice (including Thanksgiving) but John Hussey's more staid crew twice as well. The Cowboys may have had a few more run-ins with the league's more exuberant flag-throwers than average, but not enough of them to drastically skew the numbers. The source for all of this data is, an invaluable research tool.

The Cowboys' complaints about the Cardinals loss have little merit. Donovan Wilson all but tackled Zach Ertz on one DPI, while Nahshon Wright threw his arms in the air and plowed into his receiver on a fake-punt DPI which was declined. Dexter Lawrence charged into the backfield well before the snap to move the Cardinals into field goal range before halftime. Meanwhile, two Cardinals DPIs, one of which negated an interception, abetted the first Cowboys touchdown drive. The Cowboys did lose several third-down conversions to holding penalties, but they all appeared to be garden-variety fouls.

The Cowboys lost to the Cardinals because Prescott fumbled, Greg Zuerlein missed a field goal, the pass rush could not contain Kyler Murray, Trevon Diggs' Harvey Dent coin landed on "long completion" instead of "interception" a few times, some dude made a David Tyree catch, and so forth, not because the refs are in the bag to hurt, you know, one of the most popular sports teams on the continent.

The more interesting takeaway, besides the fact that the Cowboys should probably STFU and worry about preparing for the playoffs, is that high penalty totals may have added an increased randomization factor to Cowboys games. The Raiders loss is the most obvious example: Hochuli's crew turned the result of that game into utter gibberish. Other results are more subtle. The raw penalty counts in the season-opening Buccaneers loss and close wins over the Chargers, Patriots, and Vikings were all high. With so many important plays getting nullified and big chunks of yardage being awarded both ways, we may not have a read on the Cowboys' true level of performance. Given idealized officiating, are they better than the Buccaneers/Rams/Cardinals/Packers, or worse? Or does it matter which crew is officiating? That's a fair question to ask in any close matchup, but it's a more important question for a team whose average game features 125.1 total penalty yards.

The moral of the story: keep an eye on which crew will be officiating Cowboys playoff games. If you see Novak, brace for what could be a flag-filled afternoon which might impact the Cowboys (and the spread) adversely. And if you see Hochuli, take two pain relievers and consider watching a pleasant college basketball game instead.

TankWatch: New York Giants

As the 2021 season draws toward its conclusion, TankWatch examines teams at the bottom of the standings and determines how they can claw back toward respectability over the next few weeks/months/years. This is the final installment in the series, which will transition into something slightly different throughout the postseason.

Giants Season in a Nutshell: Gosh, it feels like we cover the Giants in TankWatch every other week! But that's just because they are such a persistent source of unique and surprising disappointments and melodramas.

The Giants started the season as semi-plausible wild-card hopefuls coming off a busy offseason in which they added Kenny Golladay and others to an impressive young skill-position corps. Then came a training camp full of turmoil, three straight September losses, an injury rash, and further descent into an organization-wide delusion that the Giants are on the right track and the rest of the NFL and/or society are the problem.

Coaching Situation: Joe Judge is belligerently incompetent at every facet of coaching except the one that matters most to his continued employment: the ability to convince ownership that everything that goes wrong is someone else's fault.

Judge's job appeared to be safe a few weeks ago, but he has since started launching into semi-incoherent, self-serving press conference tirades that make him sound like a drunk ranting about a failing marriage in the back of an Uber. So who knows?

Quarterback Situation: Daniel Jones played through a neck injury he suffered in a Week 12 injury over the Eagles, then was day-to-day in practice for a while, then consulted with multiple specialists before being shelved for the remainder of the 2021 season without any clear prognosis.

There's a chance that Jones could be dealing with an elusive Peyton Manning-type ailment. It's also feasible that Judge deactivated Jones so the coach wouldn't be held accountable for late-season losses, and Judge can then either take credit for Jones' 2022 success or blame the team's failure on the outgoing Dave Gettleman administration.

Yes, it's squicky to speculate about that sort of thing. But the Giants don't sound too concerned about Jones' long-term health prognosis, and Judge's dictatorial-yet-shady management style invites some conspiratorial theorizing.

Building Blocks: Left tackle Andrew Thomas overcame a shaky rookie season to become the Hog Molly of Gettleman's fantasies. Kadarius Toney has been impressive when not injured or in Judge's palatial doghouse; he could become a Deebo Samuel type in the right system. There's a sprinkle of young talent across the defense: Xavier McKinney, Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Azeez Ojulari.

Jones, Saquon Barkley, and Darius Slayton technically qualify as "building blocks." But we just covered Jones (who has thrown just 21 touchdown passes in his last two seasons), Barkley is already on his way to the Cadillac Ranch, and Slayton has been regressing since his rookie season.

Many of the Giants' most recognizable starters—James Bradberry, Blake Martinez, Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard ,and so on—are still in or around their primes but have proven rather conclusively that they are just good enough to form the nucleus of a four- to six-win team.

Future Assets: Finally, some good news! The Giants possess two first-round picks because they traded down so the Bears could draft Justin Fields in 2021. They also have an extra third-round pick thanks to a trade with the Dolphins. And with Gettleman expected to retire, they won't spend all of those picks on offensive linemen and running backs. Though they should probably spend one or two of them on offensive linemen.

And now back to the bad news: the Giants only have $2 million in cap space next year and only 42 players under contract. Per Over The Cap, that leaves them with negative $16 million in effective cap space once they fill out a complete roster, even if they are as thrifty as possible.

Engram and guard Will Hernandez are the biggest names on the Giants in-house free agency list. Re-signing them is not necessarily a priority (Engram is all but gone), but a team that cannot afford to field a 53-man roster as of now cannot really afford to let starters walk away either.

It's worth noting that Barkley will be playing on his fifth-year option and Jones will be entering his fourth season, which is typically "decision time" for quarterbacks. Long story short, the Giants will be in no position to be active in free agency this year.

Rebuilding Plan: Let's go with a best-case scenario:

  • Phase 1: Fire Judge. Like, immediately. Deactivate his key fob the moment he leaves team headquarters and mail the contents of his desk home. He's Bill O'Brien without the offensive creativity or relative cool-headedness and charm, and all he's going to do if given another year is drag the Giants further into despair.
  • Phase 2: Accept Gettleman's retirement with warmest regards and throw him a nice party. He's a deeply committed NFL lifer. The game has just passed him by.
  • Phase 3: Look outside the greater Giants family for a general manager who doesn't wax poetic about Bill Parcells every third sentence. Looking outside the greater Patriots family wouldn't hurt either. It's time to enter the 21st century, fellas.
  • Phase 4: Let that general manager hire a coach with fresh ideas. No, pretending to go for it on fourth-and-short, then rushing the punt team on the field to "surprise" the opponent is not a fresh idea. It's a plea for help.
  • Phase 5: Shine Jones up and look for potential takers in a Sam Darnold-like trade. If that fails, he might be worth a fifth-year option pickup: the Giants have lots of 2023 cap space, and Jones could be no worse than Jimmy Garoppolo in a functional system.
  • Phase 6: Don't bother with any quarterback pipe dreams. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson won't want to deal with the Giants in their current state or the New York media in any state.
  • Phase 7: Instead, go the 49ers defense-and-YAC route. Draft a stud edge rusher with the early first-round pick, a viable quarterback prospect with the second, offensive linemen with most of the rest, and try to build around the Slayton-Golladay-Toney receiver corps.

If they do all of these things, the 2022 Giants could look like the 2021 Eagles: feisty and interesting, if hardly flawless.

Final Prognosis: It's unlikely the Giants will ever get to Phase 1 of the rebuilding plan above. They have talked themselves into a "right way" of doing things and appear poised to allow Judge to select a factotum general manager and continue his Belichick cosplay.

The Giants have been gaslighting themselves since late in the Tom Coughlin/Eli Manning era. Based on Judge's recent diatribes, they're getting worse on that front, not better. Maybe they will surprise us with a moment of Black Monday clarity. If not, this will indeed remain a clown show.

Tomorrow in Walkthrough: Mike Tomlin's non-losing streak, and a look back at one of Tomlin's most memorable losses in TebowMania: Ten Years After.


42 comments, Last at 09 Jan 2022, 10:53pm

1 Keeping Judge will keep the…

Keeping Judge will keep the Giants from hiring a good GM.  Look what happened when the Jets kept Rex Ryan and hired Idzik; they had a couple of potential GMs tell them no, some for foolish reasons (one claimed the Jets cap situation was so debilitating that it would set the team back several years, even though Idzik was able to have a ton of cap space the next year).  It's obvious the reason no serious GM candidate would accept the job was because they were stuck with Rex.  At least Ryan had gone to two AFC championship games; Judge hasn't sniffed the playoffs.

2 Editing Error

The editors apparently deleted your commentary on the dozen selfish Eagles players who contracted COVID-19.

3 Re: Dallas vs Arizona and the Refs

Agree with your take, Mike. It's really annoying seeing the team harp publicly so much about the officials after the Arizona game. Oddly, the rookie Parsons was the only notable player I can think of (or who was reported on at least) who came right out and stated this is on us. The team just didn't play well enough to earn the right to complain about the refs in that game.

As a fan I was frustrated early because there were a couple obvious AZ holding penalties that didn't get called, which were followed by a couple of holding calls against Dallas there were no more egregious.Generally, holding in the NFL these days is a problem point as a viewer; it has never been more true that you can call holding on almost every play, and it seems there is little consistency as to what gets called from game to game or even within games. After that, though, both Dallas and AZ (A) played relatively sloppily and (B) benefited from borderline calls. 

Besides holding, the underthrown ball where the WR jumps back into the DB is annoying as $@#% and I would like to see that addressed by the rules committee.

The NFL also needs to get their replay %!^& together, but I can't really fault the refs in the AZ game on the missed fumble, which was a lot closer than Vander Esch & co say it was in their complaints.

4 Cowboys Penalties

I wrote a comment yesterday addressing exactly these same worries about the Cowboys and their chances in the playoffs based on who the reffing crew is! Every single close game the Cowboys have had this year has had a lot of flags involved. Three of six have been losses. The only game that seemed to actually hurt the opponent more than the Cowboys was the Chargers game, and that was unsurprisingly officiated by Tony Corrente, the ref who hip checked a Bears player and threw a bs taunting penalty. The penalties in the win over the Vikings felt like the refs trying to give Kirk Cousins a fighting chance against the Cowboys defense, and  in the win over the Patriots, the Cowboys seemed to playing their best game and managed to make a lot of big plays to overcome all the penalties.

As for the Cardinals game, the problem wasn't that the penalties were fabricated, but that an occasional glance at the Cardinals' offensive line would show them committing the same garden variety holds, but no flags coming out. But the biggest problem with the officiating was the final Cardinals drive, in which the refs didn't throw a delay of game penalty on the Cards despite the clock reaching double zeros, ruling Edmonds in bounds on a tackle despite him obviously being out of bounds (forcing McCarthy to use a timeout), and not using the unofficial sky judge to correct the non fumble call on the field that actually was a fumble. And McCarthy couldn't challenge it because his previous timeout was wasted on the refs' previous mistake.

I think the Cowboys are being more vocal about the officiating, because there have been a lot of bad calls determining games, and  McCarthy has allowed it because he's not used to coaching for a team that doesn't get the benefit of the doubt.

Although this mindset might make Cowboys players have less accountability, one odd benefit might be that they won't panic if a bad call or no-call happens to them in the playoffs. Sean Payton went nuts after the no-call in the NFC Championship game, and I think this panic clearly translated to the players when Brees through a desperation deep ball that was intercepted in overtime. Micheal Thomas also clearly panicked and could have prevented the interception had he not.




23 Payton

Payton went nuts because that was the worst officiating in the history of American sports. 

27 It's certainly one of the…

In reply to by mehnsrea

It's certainly one of the most egregious and game altering calls/non-calls, but I've seen worse overall officiating.  The 2005 Denver-NE Divisional and the 2012 Baltimore-NE replacement ref fiasco jump immediately to mind.  

29 Fail Mary

The Fail Mary was ugly.  Green Bay vs Seattle with the replacement refs.  Interception gets called a touchdown by one ref and a timeout by another

32 Good call.   A game that…

Good call.  

A game that came to mind since that post where NE's opponent got jobbed on numerous calls is against Minnesota in 2006.  The Vikings were so thoroughly whipped that it wouldn't have flipped the score, but I remember thinking at least half a dozen times how upset I would have been had it been my team on the receiving end.

28 There was a false start…

In reply to by mehnsrea

There was a false start called this year where the player did not move—nor did  anyone else on the O line. 

I don't remember the game, maybe the Jets-Eagles game, maybe a week or two after that.

39 Good point about the…

In reply to by Romodini

Good point about the cumulative effect of bad calls over the course of the season. I think you're right there, though as a Cowboys fan I'm biased so not sure that means too mcuh.

For the AZ game though I disagree with the last drive assessment, i.e., 

RE: "in which the refs didn't throw a delay of game penalty on the Cards despite the clock reaching double zeros,"

That happens all the time. I've seen more time after 00 not get called. I haven't rewatched the game but it didn't strike me as unreasonable at the time. I don't understand though why the NFL play clock does not go to tenths or hundredths and stop making this a judgment call to guess when the 0 is actually 0.00.

RE: "ruling Edmonds in bounds on a tackle despite him obviously being out of bounds (forcing McCarthy to use a timeout),"

If it was so obvious why didn't McCarthy throw his challenge flag there? It wasn't obvious. 

RE: "and not using the unofficial sky judge to correct the non fumble call on the field that actually was a fumble."

The sky judge is for quickly observed obvious calls, no way that was obvious.

Dallas just needed to play that game better and not put themselves in a position where the refs could matter.



5 The Browns had 2 turnovers…

The Browns had 2 turnovers due to bad officiating against the Packers as well as a couple other unquestionably bad calls that also went against them in high leverage plays. And they lost by 2. And they kept fairly quiet about the whole experience. 

Im not sure why the Cowboys are complaining. 

7 The state of NFL's replay…

The state of NFL's replay system is deplorable.  The technology (and the money) to fix a lot of in game mistakes quickly exists, but the passive aggressive approach to PI replay last year (let's make the replay system so random it's worse than the disease!) suggests that for whatever reason, there's a mindset inside of the NFL opposed to making rule calling more consistent.

If letting normal player griping be highlighted on the team's website (knowing it'll be picked up on by the nation-wide media) is JJ's way of bringing some additional leverage on the topic for the upcoming offseason, then I'm in favor of it.

It'll also be almost the only thing JJ's done that I'm in favor of, so this is a refreshing moment for me (even if it's an imagined one on my part).

9 Agreed on the replay system…

Agreed on the replay system. I’ve wrote on that before. I found it hilarious that the NFL actively refused to change any PI call as a method to create the evidence to say PI calls didn’t need to be reviewed. I have to wonder if several of those videos were used to train referees how to make calls, but with the opposite decision being taught. 

19 What is true for basketball refs must be true in football

The NBA releases a two minute report in close games regarding referees correct and incorrect calls.  It has been shown previously in the NBA that 90% of missed calls are "non calls."  Refs clearly do not view a non-call as a call and in fact a non-call has a tremendous impact on the game.  "Let them play."  This means let them commit penalties at the end, but not during the game.

Refer to the article above, in a close game in the NBA in the last two minutes the refs almost always miss a defensive 3 second violation and offensive 3 second violation.  Traveling and offensive fouls are rarely called.

Now lets bring this to football.  Do you think that the refs in a close game are going to call PI or holding (defensive or offensive) in the last few seconds of a close game?  Not fair to use a sample size of 1, but I sure remember a PI in a playoff game that led us to having PI reviewable.

Here is a list of a few crucial non-calls for my home team, try it with yours:  

Ravens-Pittsburgh 2021 2 point conversion with 12 seconds left to decide the game.  Pittsburgh clearly lines up in neutral zone - no call.

Ravens vs Lions 2021  Ravens clearly commit delay of game, with 7 seconds left, no call leaves them try for 66 yard FG for a win.  Even Tucker could not have made the 71 yard FG that should have been.

Ravens vs 49ers SB:  4th and goal for 49ers under two minutes remaining, with Ravens up 5:  Ravens commit multiple defensive holding fouls on play, neither are called.

My point is that there are so so so many non-calls in football that decide games late, there is no reason to believe that this is any different from the NBA.  We must have all calls be reviewable.  The NBA can not do this because of continuous action, thus all non-calls are not reviewable.  In football we have play stoppages after every play to spot the ball and have the offense and defense get set.  There is no excuse to not be able to review any call.

Now try and think of when your team won or lost a game at the end because of a penalty call.  A lot fewer will come to mind.  But you will think of plenty of non-calls.


22 Should definitely be reviewable

Two huge non-calls on the top of my head I can think of:

The David Tyree helmet catch was on a play that the Giants clearly held Patriots players in order to allow time for Eli to escape and throw the ball.

In the 2016 divisional game between the Cowboys and Packers, DT David Irving is held and basically tackled while Rodgers throws the miracle pass that allows them to set up a game winning field goal.

The most recent big penalty call that was made at the end of a game I can remember was the Rams-Cowboys opener from 2020 in which OPI was called on a big passing play to Michael Gallup.

17 Yeah this year has been…

Yeah this year has been pretty nice as a Packers fan. Most games have been decently officiated both ways. Of course there have been missed calls and bad calls but it's been pretty even. The big exception is that the Browns had to play GB and the officials in that game. I said it during the game in the comments thread here too, the Browns definitely got screwed by the refs and I would have liked to have seen how the game would have played out without those blown calls. It's very possible GB could have still won it's very possible CLE could have won. I know it was a 2 point game and they were high leverage, but the way the teams were playing was really interesting and different scoring margins changed strats on both sides. So it would have been a lot better game without those blown calls.

6 Penalties

Teams hurt most by penalties (net yards differential)

TB -239

SF -232

MIN -220

HOU -165

LV -153

CLE -148

LAC -128

BUF -123

DAL -116

CHI -95

Teams helped most by penalties

CIN +312

IND +293

PIT +224

DEN +210

ATL +209

NYG +132

MIA +121

SEA +100

TEN +74

WAS +68

8 I think this brings up a lot…

In reply to by AFCNFCBowl

I think this brings up a lot of nuance. Just a couple examples to explain:

Does a 32 yard defensive PI call hurt a defense? Or does it just create the outcome that would have happened anyway? Or maybe it goes both ways? 

Does an offensive holding penalty “take back” a long run or would the run have never happened if not for the hold? 

13 When the DPI is of the …

When the DPI is of the "under-thrown ball allows receiver to run into DB and pretend to be interfered with" variety, it definitely just hurts a defense, since the outcome of a completion would not have happened due to the poorly thrown ball.

As for the holding penalties, I've seen plays where the the long run probably wouldn't have happened without the holding, and others where the hold seems to have no contribution to the success of the run because it happens away from the actual running lane.

18 probably

it's safe to treat DPI as a completion + first down (which is typically "bad for the defense").  Sometimes a PI would be worse than letting the ball go (underthrown), sometimes you save a TD or big YAC.

34 "Completion + First Down" is…

In reply to by zenbitz

"Completion + First Down" is considerably better than a TD, which is the possible outcome of some PIs. It's not always so clear cut.

10 The only problem with that is

In reply to by AFCNFCBowl

Total penalty yards (gross or net) aren't a great representation of impact. Defensive holding on 3rd and 10 is only a 5 yard penalty, but the resulting automatic first down is incredibly impactful in terms of extending a drive. Do that 3 times a game, and 15 net yards could represent 21 points.

Take Chiefs/Bengals this week. Illegal Hands to the Face on Sneed in the end zone ended up being less than a net yard (assessed half the distance)...but the granted first down effectively ended the game with a Cincinnati win.

20 Excellent points.  The…

Excellent points.  The number of total penalties should be evaluated as well as the yardage.  Can't remember the exact stat, but I recall that even a single offensive penalty dramatically reduces the expected points from a drive and while I'm sure the 10- and 15-yard varieties have a bigger impact than the 5-yard varieties, I'm not sure they're 2x or 3x as big an impact (but stand to be corrected if anyone has the actual data).

11 Is there a penalty…

In reply to by AFCNFCBowl

Is there a penalty repository where I can relive all 9 Illegal Downfield/OPI penalties the Eagles have taken this year and how many touchdowns they've directly negated?

14 Giants is my top pick for 2023 #1 seed

I see the Lions going somewhere, even after this season.

I see the Bears rebuilding with already a strong defense, and Justin Fields getting coached out of his bad habit of throwing to the opposing team and taking sacks galore

I see the Jaguars finding relevance again with a better season from Goldilocks and more defensive help so Josh Allen (the defender) can wreak havoc. 

Zach Wilson is finding his game at last, and the Jets are fighting. 

I can even see the Texans getting out of the hole through finding a decent QB in free agency / improving Mills and getting some nice package in exchange of Watson from a very desperate team

The Giants? Well. To put it mildly, I think their best bet right now is bringing Eli out of retirement. 

15 Judgement calls....

In another century, I played competitive volleyball where I found the best written rule in sports (IMHO). It was the definition of a "carry"-- a touch of the ball where the hands stay too long. The rule began with the phrase:  "When in the opinion of the referee...." That says it all. There is no appeal. Some calls are judgments. Always will be. Replay or no. Giving fans an opportunity to express their judgment is good for views and clicks on the interweb. When it bleeds into players and coaches, it leads to poor performance. 

Pro tip, bet against the whiners.

21 It might have been a great…

It might have been a great rule in your opinion, but I would guess not in the opinion of most volleyball players.  The current FIVB rulebook says nothing about referee opinion and instead provides an objective definition:  "the ball does not rebound from the hit".

In my opinion, any rule that has to be written with reference to someone's personal opinion is just a bad rule.  The only calls that require judgement are calls based on rules that aren't properly thought out in advance or defined precisely.  Football is full of them, but it doesn't need to be.  Calls that get missed because they go unseen are one thing, calls that go uncalled because one ref thinks its okay and another doesn't are something else altogether. 

30 How do you define "rebound"?

"Objective" rules that "eliminate judgment" only move the judgment deeper.  In this case, you'd probably need some way to quantitatively measure "rebound", like the deceleration/acceleration of the ball when contacting the player's hands, in real time during the match in every location.  Which is probably not technologically feasible, and even if it is, only moves the "judgment" to setting the metrics.

38 It's the dirty secret of the…

It's the dirty secret of the NFL (and the sport in general) that it is, basically, impossible to referee fairly and consistently. Just too much contact, at extreme speed, going on over a large area. And you can make the rulebook as thick as you like, but the lines between what is legal/illegal are always going to be somewhat blurred. 

I've long suspected that reffing crews - whether explicitly or tacitly- officiate to 'quotas'. That is, with the knowledge of what constitutes a palatable number of penalties that display the rules being enforced and keep the players somewhat in check, without ruining the spectacle. I've watched many games that flow penalty-free for a couple of quarters before, as if by magic, the flags suddenly start appearing. Of course this is all conjecture, but then it isn't even up for debate that fewer flags are thrown come playoff time. 

Without doubt there are many steps the NFL could take to improve officiating. Starting with employing younger, professional crews (duh!). And implementing an actually some way efficient 'eye-in-the-sky' replay system. But we are never going to approach absolute levels of fairness/objectivity. That's just the nature of the sport. Therefore I've learned to try and enjoy the game with that in that mind (granted it becomes tough when there is emotional investment, or money on the line). But I don't buy any notion that it is ever skewed/slanted in favor of particular teams. The Cowboys' public griping is pretty pathetic.  

42 Late to the thread.  As a…

Late to the thread.  As a Chiefs fan, I'm obviously biased and think a lot of the calls late in the Bengals game were bogus, and twice the refs missed false starts on the Bengals.  But the bigger problem:  it was a jerry-rigged crew, with the referee being a fill-in for the normal ref and two of the other officials being replacements who were working out of position (i.e. a side judge working as a line judge).

In a billion dollar industry, having part-timers working jobs they normally don't fill is an embarrassment, pandemic or not.