The last thing the Dallas Cowboys, the teacher's pet of the NFL who would never deign commit a penalty so as not to besmirch the integrity of the league, ever need is help from the officials, particularly in a season that's now started 11-1 and will have home-field wrapped up in a matter of days. Yet, that's exactly what they got Thursday night in Minnesota.
On a potential game-tying two-point conversion play with 25 seconds left, a Sam Bradford pass flew high out of the end zone, just as Dallas' Cedric Thornton, who'd been blitzing, was swatting his arms down at Bradford's helmet, creating clear contact and the requisite penalty. You can't hit the quarterback on the head. Everybody knows this. That should be a flag.
But none was thrown. And that's a good thing. It was a robbery with purpose — a kind of Robin Hood in zebra print.
I know we're supposed to protect quarterbacks like Ming vases and Bradford in particular, who's like a Ming vase being thrown around as a tailgate football by frat boys from Delta Sig. This is OK during the game when a play that might draw the same flag, though it might have far-reaching effects down the road, doesn't specifically alter the course of the game. At the end, when that call might be the difference between Minnesota making the playoffs or Dallas starting a late-season collapse that actually could end with a road wild-card game simply for the right to play the Giants in Jersey, you can't throw that flag. You just can't. It's a combination of pass interference on a Hail Mary (there's too much going on to let one aspect of the play dictate the end of the game) and a player away from the ball tugging on the jersey of an opponent as Steph Curry misses a shot that would have given Golden State a victory. (It's irrelevant toward the play. Oh, and did you hear Curry's team blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals?)
Because in this case, the shot to the head had nothing to do with Bradford's incompletion. Witness.
That screenshot shows the ball was out of Bradford's hand before Thornton's mitts even began to think about making contact with Bradford's head. Plain and simple: The pass, which might have been good if Kyle Rudolph had been a photographer 10 feet back from the end zone, already had been thrown, largely due to that pressure from Thornton and other Cowboys quickly storming Bradford. It wasn't until after that Thornton smacked Bradford.
Announcers on TV, postgame announcers and the peanut gallery on Twitter that serves solely to throw those peanuts said the flag should have been thrown. The rules are clear, after all. You can't make contact with the head of a quarterback. That's a fact. The flag should have been forthcoming — no one, not even famous Cowboys like Jerry Jones or John Wayne, could say otherwise. There's no gray area — no Scalia-like readings of the law that can call into question the intent of the framers of Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9, Subsection 9, Note 2 (unsportsmanlike conduct should be called if “an opponent forcibly hits the quarterback’s head or neck area with his helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder”). Dude hit him. It's a flag.
But, and this is where so many people differ and have for years: A ref has to be cognizant of the situation. The first 25 seconds of the game are not like the last 25 seconds of the game and should never be judged as such. This is the popular rallying cry — call the game the same for all 60 minutes, but that's insane. Teams don't rush to the line 25 seconds into a game. Teams don't call timeouts 25 seconds into a game. Teams don't spike the ball to kill the clock 25 seconds into a game. Teams don't try to tie a game on a two-point conversion with 25 seconds left in a game. It's not remotely the same and shouldn't be called as such.
If you're a strict adherent to the “call it the same in the first minute of the last,” there's no use debating. We're both locked into our positions and won't change our minds. It's like trying to get someone to subscribe to your political views or at least to convince them that “Westworld” isn't a horrible show. We're slaves to our own habits and beliefs.
Tony Corrente took a stand on Thursday, thought about the dangers of wielding a flag and using it the same in all situations. Or maybe he just missed it and is no longer our Norma Rae. I hope it's the former, though. Minnesota already had been whistled for a false start on the two-point conversion (not a judgment call so a totally different story) and, through its own lack of discipline and stupidity, needed 7 yards instead of 2 to tie the game. Bradford had his shot, he panicked, overthrew Rudolph due in large part to Thornton's pressure and then, as the play was over, Thornton's momentum brought him toward Bradford, where he brought his right hand down unavoidably on the face mask. The play was neither clean, nor dirty. It was neither right, nor wrong. It easily could have been called a penalty and maybe should have been. For the integrity of the game, I'm glad it wasn't.