CHARLOTTE, N.C. - It's the first rule every kid learns when playing organized sports: don't blame the refs, no matter how wrong they might be.
That's fine when all that's at stake is some pride and maybe postgame ice cream. But when you've got a trip to the NFC Championship on the line and you feel you've been jobbed, keeping your mouth shut is tough. Keeping your mouth shut when there's clear evidence you've been wronged? For some players, that's impossible.
The Carolina Panthers lost to the San Francisco 49ers 23-10 on Sunday, victims of their own failure to execute and to contain a 49er team before it could find its footing. But for Panther fans, and for at least one outspoken member of the team, the referees must share some of the blame.
"[NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell was here," safety Mike Mitchell said. "I'd be curious to hear him explain why the penalties were called the way they were."
Mitchell had more reason than most to be frustrated. On San Francisco's first drive, he was called for unnecessary roughness for hitting Vernon Davis after the ball was out of play. But the way Mitchell saw it, the ball was still very much in play. The penalty allowed San Francisco to advance from fourth down at the Carolina 40 to first down on the 25; the 49ers would turn it into the game's first field goal.
"Terrible call," Mitchell said after the game. "Terrible call. Terrible call. Terrible call." He paused, stared directly into one of the cameras ringing him, and continued. "Did you get that? Terrible. Call."
(Earlier this season, Mitchell claimed that Goodell and the NFL had targeted him, so bear that in mind. He's been fined plenty for his actions, and could see his wallet lightening again this week.)
Mitchell was also on the receiving end of one of the more curious non-calls of the game. Midway through the first half, Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree exchanged words, and then Munnerlyn head-butted Crabtree, drawing a 15-yard penalty. But with just a few seconds left in the half, 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin and Mitchell conversed, with Boldin knocking his helmet into Mitchell's. There was no penalty called, and San Francisco would score its go-ahead touchdown four plays later.
"It was the exact same play," Mitchell said, shaking his head at the discrepancy.
One missed play, you can excuse. But that touchdown was a nexus of missed calls. On the play just before Davis' touchdown, San Francisco appeared to have 12 men in the huddle but didn't draw a flag. The refs' explanation of why there was no penalty turned into a case of "who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" More to the point:
Ref Carl Cheffers said he didn't penalize Niners for 12 men in the huddle before V Davis TD b/c ball had not been marked ready for play yet.
— Joe Person (@josephperson) January 12, 2014
FOX replay doesn't back up Cheffers' explanation: Shows him signalling ready for play before 89 (Vance McDonald) leaves the huddle. — Joe Person (@josephperson) January 12, 2014
The 12 man in the offensive huddle should have been a dead ball foul on SF. It would have been 1st and goal from the 6 -- not the 1.
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) January 12, 2014
Oh, and there's also 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. Just weeks after Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin was fined $100,000, with the possibility of lost draft picks still looming, for being on the field, take a look at where Harbaugh is standing during the Colin Kaepernick-to-Davis touchdown: Granted, Tomlin's presence close to the field had a dramatic effect on the game, as he may have altered a kickoff runback by Jacoby Jones, while Harbaugh merely secured himself the best viewing spot in Bank of America Stadium. But still, rules are rules, are they not? Selective enforcement of rules only gives rise to accusations of favoritism.
Referees have had a difficult time hewing to their own rules this season; this game will do little to help their reputation with fans anywhere outside of the Bay Area. Credit San Francisco, though, for understanding the role that referees would play in this game. From Harbaugh on down, the 49ers knew that committing stupid penalties — or, more to the point, getting caught committing stupid penalties — could be catastrophic.
"In the playoffs, you give up 15-yard penalties and keep the drive going, it's going to hurt you," linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "That's why the coaches harped on it so much this week. No post-snap, no pre-snap penalties, and we'll be all right."
"I think for the most part it was their guys that were getting the flags," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "My hat goes off to our guys for just being smart and understanding that a crazy penalty like that could hurt us."
For his part, Cam Newton sidestepped the issue of referees. "Out of my hands," he said after the game. "I'm not going to focus on officiating, I'm going to worry about, how could I get better from this?"
To answer the headline question: No, the refs did not cost Carolina this game. Missed assignments, missed tackles, curiously tentative playcalling, and a failure to get more than three points from two trips to the 49er 1-yard-line did much more than the men in black and white.
Still, the referees deserve scrutiny for their egregiously blown calls. These calls frustrate players and fans alike, and while nobody's turning off the NFL, plenty of people could be a lot more engaged if all the members of the enterprise were carrying their fair share. Otherwise, you've got sentiment like that of former quarterback/current NBC Sports correspondent Shaun King:
Man I hate refs — shaun king (@realshaunking) January 12, 2014
None of that helps the Panthers, though, who now go into an offseason filled with questions of what could have been ... and a newfound sense of purpose.
"We will see [the 49ers] again. I want to play them again with a new set of refs," Mitchell said. "We can beat them."