The NFL's head of officiating says the controversial flag picked up in Sunday's Dallas Cowboys-Detroit Lions playoff game was a "tight judgment call" for defensive pass interference.
But Dean Blandino acknowledged in an appearance Monday afternoon on NFL Network that Cowboys linebacker and former Iowa Hawkeye Anthony Hitchens should have been penalized for holding Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew before the ball was thrown.
"When you see the jersey grab before the ball is thrown, that's defensive holding," said Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating. "So, had the officials recognized that, we should've had a foul down for that infraction."
The no-call came with about 8½ minutes remaining in the NFC wild-card playoff game at Dallas, with the Lions leading 20-17 and Pettigrew in pattern on third-and-1. Instead of a first down around the 30-yard line, the Lions had fourth-and-1 and opted for an ill-fated punt.
Back judge Lee Dyer threw the flag for pass interference on Hitchens, who was shown on replay making some contact with Pettigrew's shoulder before the ball arrived. But Dyer changed his mind after conferring with head linesman Jerry Bergman.
"You could debate whether it's pass interference," Blandino said, noting that faceguarding is legal in the NFL, provided there's not "significant contact" that materially restricts the receiver's ability to make the catch. It was up to Dyer to decide whether to pick up his own flag.
Hitchens, a rookie for the Cowboys, saw action in all four of his years at Iowa. The 22-year-old finished his Hawkeyes career with 270 tackles.
Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell also has Iowa ties. Caldwell was a defensive back for the Hawkeyes from 1973-1976 and served as a graduate assistant for Iowa beginning in 1977.
Another problem: Morelli announced the pass interference call while the other officials were still talking, only to open his microphone again moments later and say there was no foul, with no additional explanation until a pool report hours after the Cowboys rallied to win 24-20.
"They talked about it as the referee was making his announcement, and we would prefer that they get together before the initial announcement," Blandino said. "Then we can discuss it, make one announcement that there was no flag for defensive pass interference."
As for Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant coming onto the field without a helmet to dispute the call, Blandino said the league "certainly would've supported a flag there, because players coming off the bench in that manner, that's not something that we condone, but it's not an automatic penalty. There's some discretion. The officials felt it didn't warrant a penalty."
All of which doesn't matter now for the Lions, whose season is over, while the Cowboys head to Lambeau Field for a divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.