Losses hurt. Losses defined by referee intervention especially hurt. During Sunday’s 31-28 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings notched eight penalties for 80 yards. Not all of these were obvious, however. When asked about the officiating, Zimmer seemed annoyed with the outcomes of the calls:
Importantly, Zimmer clarified that the calls were not “why we lost.”
If every call went the Vikings’ way, they probably would have won. But that would be just as unfair to ask for as a game where the referees cost Minnesota the game. Andy Dalton had his best game of the year, completing 22 of his 32 passes for 203 yards, three touchdowns and a singular pick. Ezekiel Elliott had his first 100-yard game of the season, as well as a season high in yards per carry.
The penalties hurt, but there are many internal problems the Vikings have to fix. The game-winning touchdown featured a wide open Dalton Schultz. Harrison Smith blew multiple coverages. The defensive line only generated four pressures. Fixing these problems will go much further than overturning a few calls.
But sometimes a team can play well enough to win, but not well enough to overcome poor officiating. Personally I think that if a game is close enough to be influenced by officiating, the losing team has a poor claim to victory. But we can put that aside. What if this game was the exception? Which calls were bad, and how much did those plays influence the game?
The Vikings notched eight penalties for 80 yards. Of those, just three were controversial. There were also some controversial missed calls that were potentially worth evaluating. For the sake of comprehensiveness, here are the five penalties with no ambiguity surrounding them whatsoever.
The remaining three warrant some discussion. This holding penalty from Garrett Bradbury saw some heat on Twitter, but that may just be in-the-moment homer analysis. In reality, Bradbury’s hands are under the defender’s pads, and his shoulders don’t line up. He stops the defender from attempting a tackle on Dalvin Cook, giving Cook a free cutback. It’s an incontrovertible penalty by the book, but warranted explanation because of the reaction to it.
The other two penalties are more assailable. This chop block penalty by Dakota Dozier is an easy flag by the book, if a bit touchy. A chop block is a block where a player dives at another player’s knees while they’re engaged with another player. These are dangerous plays that lead to lower leg injuries, so the league’s strictness is warranted. While the “engagement” on this penalty is a small push, it still counts within the text of the rule. No NFL team would design a punishable play this way — either Bradbury was not supposed to engage the defender, or Dozier was supposed to wait until Bradbury was disengaged.
The most controversial penalty on the Vikings by far was the unnecessary roughness call on Harrison Smith. Smith hit CeeDee Lamb over the middle, contributing to an incompletion. Per the rulebook on defenseless players, this should not have been a penalty.
Prohibited contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture is:
Forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder, even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him
Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the crown or ”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body
In this clip, Smith does not lower his head, nor does he make contact with the head or neck area. Defenders are taught to tackle with their “facemask up” and to “see what they hit.” Smith does that well enough here, also moving his head to the side to avoid any illegal hit. He hits Lamb hard, but legally. Unfortunately, hard, legal hits can be misconstrued as illegal hits, and there is no way to reconsider them.
Later on this drive, the Cowboys would go four-and-out. While this call was incorrect, its impact on the game was fortunately limited.
To get a sense for missed Cowboys infractions, I put out a request for people to send me their most egregious examples. By far the most oft-mentioned was the helmet-to-helmet hit on Kirk Cousins during his fumble on the first drive.
The rules on roughing the passer are complex, but there is one portion that comes into play. Donovan Wilson is headed directly for the ball, and in the course of Cousins falling (thanks to DeMarcus Lawrence destroying Riley Reiff), his helmet collides directly with Cousins’. But this contact seems incidental.
This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer.
Wilson is clearly trying to strip the ball. While his helmet hits Cousins’, the hit is only a foul if he “forcibly” uses his helmet as a weapon. Were Harrison Smith to get a penalty on a play like this, we’d likely decry the rule. Hits like this have been a foul plenty in the past, however, and a flag here would not have been surprising. It’s a much closer call than the broadcast made it seem. After this play, Dallas took just three plays to score an easy touchdown.
Another commonly mentioned call was a defensive holding on Adam Thielen on a crucial 3rd and 10. Rashard Robinson gets his hand inside Thielen’s shoulder pads and gets a clear influence on Thielen’s route at its breaking point.
This is perhaps the most egregious call in the game, aside from the one on Harrison Smith. Further, it had the biggest impact on the game. After this play, Dallas went to score the go-ahead touchdown. That’s to say nothing of the special teams and defensive blunders that contributed to that score, but that there was an opportunity at all is in question.
There are more mentioned calls that warrant debunking. To start, Cook’s fumble. The catch and fumble rules in the NFL have been confusing for a long time, but this season, they’ve been calling this consistently. Cook gets possession of the ball, tucks it away and then loses possession. The tucking is the key; it counts as the “move common to the game” that cements this as a catch. The NFL’s catch rules have been strange for a long time, and this is a new tendency, but this will be called this way all year.
On Tony Pollard‘s 42-yard touchdown, many pointed out a holding penalty on Jaleel Johnson. Watch No. 66 Connor McGovern. He gets into a holding position, with his hands around Johnson’s waist. There is a slight tug that could have been called for holding, but much more contact is uncalled play-in and play-out. By the letter of the law, that’s holding, but if football fans could see a world where plays like that are flagged, most of us would want to go back.
Still, if you want to be upset about missed holding calls, you’d have ground to stand on. On the ensuing two-point conversion, Jaleel Johnson was “held” again. This time, the contact is much less obvious.
On this play, McGovern gets his arm around Johnson again. This time, however, there’s much less pulling. Considering that the NFL has de-emphasized holding this season, it’s unsurprising that this or the last plays went un-called. The most egregious example in this game by far was Bradbury’s, and it was the only one that drew a flag.
Finally, there’s this play that knocked Thielen out of the game for a few plays. Donovan Wilson gets his helmet on the ball and ends up pinching Thielen’s fingers.
This play has a lot in common with Smith’s. Wilson gets his head to the side, the contact is to the chest, and the crown of his helmet is not weaponized. Smith’s shouldn’t have been flagged, and this shouldn’t have been either.
The officials missed a few calls throughout the game, and a couple of them even impacted important plays. But the impact of these singular examples is dwarfed by the impact of, say, poor ball security. Many of these plays were followed by egregious mistakes on the Minnesota defense or special teams. The Vikings won’t go back to practice and say everything is okay because the refs missed a hold or two. They’ll try to add discipline to their punt gunners and solidify their communication in coverage. Such improvements would not only outweigh the impact of the occasional missed calls, but also mitigate those impacts by denying the opponent the ability to capitalize.