A referee has never cost a team a game.
But a referee sure can help a team lose one.
Sunday, in Philadelphia, the Arizona Cardinals did not play a particularly good football game in a 24-21 loss. Carson Palmer was responsible for three turnovers and missed some open receivers, the offensive line allowed five sacks (and numerous pressures), receivers dropped passes, the defense was carved up at times by some mediocre tight ends and the special teams were not so special.
Yet, with all of those issues, the Cards were still in position to win the game in its final minutes, and seemingly in prime position to earn a victory in a tough environment on a day in which they didn’t play particularly well.
Then, Tyrann Mathieu was flagged for holding, negating a Patrick Peterson interception. Then, Michael Floyd was not granted either of two obvious penalties that would have kept Arizona’s final drive alive. Then, Matt Shaughnessy was flagged for defensive holding, giving the Eagles a first down instead of forcing them to kick a field goal, thereby giving the Cardinals’ offense one more shot.
It was a brutal sequence of events, especially if you like the Cardinals. Did it cost Arizona the game? No, but it hurt. Bad.
“I’ll say this: the refereeing did not determine us losing the football game,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said after the game. “We didn’t make enough plays.”
When officiating problems occur, you’ll often hear people say things like “don’t leave it up to the refs” or “play better so the refs don’t matter.” Sometimes, you’ll hear, “you can’t play that poorly and expect to win anyway.”
That’s generally the approach Arians seemed to take following the events in the City of Brotherly Love.
“We lost this football game with self-inflicted wounds,” he said. “We didn’t create any turnovers and we obviously turned it over and gave them an early start.”
Indeed, if the Cardinals had played better it may not have come down to the referees making some questionable calls. Arians is right to take that approach, as his team cannot afford to dwell on the refs when they have plenty of their own mistakes to correct.
“Coach said after the game that’s not the reason we lost,” Palmer said. “There’s bad calls in every game, that’s part of the game. That’s not why we lost the game.”
It’s not the only reason.
In this case, the calls that went against the Cardinals robbed them of an opportunity to make enough plays and overcome a sloppy performance to escape with a much-needed road win. And as my colleague Vince Marotta wrote, all you want is to have an opportunity.
“We just dug ourselves a hole in the first half,” Larry Fitzgerald said. “But we played from behind many times and we were confident coming out that we’d be able to do it. There were a couple tough breaks down the stretch.”
It’s no fun when those breaks go against you.
“It’s just unfortunate that that flag was out there,” safety Rashad Johnson said of the hold on Mathieu that cost the Cardinals an interception. “I didn’t see the whole play and see what exactly happened, but that’s something that we don’t want to happen at that point of time in the game.
“I can’t really say if it was a good call or bad call, I really couldn’t tell the whole thing. But it was definitely a big play in the game and a big momentum shift because we would have been in at least field goal range to tie the game up and go to overtime.”
The Cardinals could have played better and the referees could have called the game better.
Both need to be better.