(SportsNetwork.com) - The "Pick-up Artist" is no longer just a bad 1980s film starring Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr. It's now Pete Morelli's nickname forevermore in the Motor City.
The NFL controversy of the year was the picked-up penalty flag during the Dallas Cowboys' 24-20 wild-card weekend win over the Detroit Lions, a curious decision fueled even further by Morelli's failure to explain it on the field.
Here's what happened:
The flag was thrown for pass interference against Dallas linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who was racing to cover Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew on a key 3rd-and-1 play with 8:25 left in a razor-close game. A poorly thrown ball by Matthew Stafford resulted in some contact between the two players and back judge Lee Dyer threw the flag with Morelli announcing the penalty,
Head linesman Jerry Bergman then came in, claiming a better angle and ruled that there was minimal contact on the play and some face-guarding, which is not a penalty in professional football. Because the contact did not impede the receiver's ability to get to the football in the judgment of Bergman, the penalty was rescinded.
Making matters worse was the fact that Morelli placed the ball at the spot of the foul before reversing course.
The Lions eventually lined up on fourth down and attempted to draw the Cowboys offside before settling for Sam Martin's disastrous 10-yard punt.
"The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference," Morelli explained to the pool reporter on hand after the game. "We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference. He thought it was face guarding."
That's a real solid explanation and it would have been nice to hear it on the field where for once people were actually clamoring for an Ed Hochuli-like 15- minute diatribe explaining the mechanics of the non-call.
And that's where Morelli failed.
"The information came and then the officials got together a little bit later after it was given to me, the first information," the veteran referee said. "It probably would've been smoother if we got together."
After the game, the Lions were understandably upset. They led 20-17 at the time of the penalty and the Cowboys scored what turned out to be the game- winning points on the ensuing drive.
"I thought it was a good call at first," Stafford said. "I was told he did not make contact with the receiver. I thought it was the right call until he picked up the flag. I thought it was a penalty but that's not my decision."
Pettigrew went even further.
"I thought it was ridiculous, to be honest," the tight end said. "But there's nothing I can do about it. He ran through me pretty much, trying to get back to the ball. To me, it was obvious. To them they made whatever call and picked up the flag."
Hitchens, of course, has a far different take.
"I was just trying to play defense and I felt like it was the right call," he said.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth but many conspiracy theorists immediately took to Twitter to post an old picture of NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino departing Jones' so-called party bus as evidence the league was in cahoots with America's Team.
"I've never seen one get that far into the next play and ready to go again and have it reversed, but I think that's a good thing," Jones admitted. "If we're going to stop action and we're going to have replay and we're going to have interpretation from New York -- which I'm all for -- and we're going to do all that, then we might as well get 'em all right. And, again, I think they made the right call in terms of not calling it."
That tortured explanation wasn't enough for Lions safety James Ihedigbo, who wasn't ready to call for the NFL's version of the Warren Commission but was stunned by the reversal.
"Eight years in the NFL, I haven't seen that happen," Ihedigbo said. "I mean, they already spotted the ball as a pass interference, and then went back and said it wasn't pass interference. I don't know how that happens."
So was it a penalty or not?
Put the play in the 1970s or '80s and it's not but the way the NFL has called pass interference this season, it's tough to justify the non-call.
FOX rules analyst Mike Pereira, the former VP of officiating before Blandino explained it on Twitter: "Biggest call was the DPI (defensive pass interference) pickup. It was DPI and it was defensive holding as well. Not good," Pereira wrote.
Pereira is correct. It's the league that has turned back-shoulder fades and woefully underthrown balls into coachable offensive strategy by enabling receivers to initiate contact by simply stopping.
To me, though, the whole controversy shines the spotlight on a bigger issue, the fact that the NFL is overlegislated and the league sets up its own officials to fail with arcane regulations.
On that very play, Hitchens could have been called for holding and pass interference, while Pettigrew could have been whistled for illegal hands to the face, and Dez Bryant should have been flagged for running onto the field to protest the call without his helmet.
None of the violations were caught but incompetence hardly equates to conspiracy.
And neither added up to a Lions loss on Sunday.
The momentum certainly shifted with the decision but it had nothing to do with Martin's egregious punt, the NFL's second-ranked defense's inability to stop Tony Romo and Co. when it mattered most, or Stafford's fumbling problem in the waning moments.
Those are things Detroit must "pick up" if it wants to get to the next level.