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NFL assigns Lions same referee as last year's controversial Packers game

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Sometimes, the NFL is tone deaf. 

One year after a pair of controversial officiating decisions cost the Detroit Lions an early-season road win against the Green Bay Packers — starting a downward spiral for the franchise — the league has assigned the same officiating crew to oversee this weekend's game between the two teams. 

Aaron Rodgers talks to Kenny Golladay after last year's Packers win at Green Bay.

In Week 5 of the 2019 season, the Lions held a 22-13 lead over the Packers in the fourth quarter. As the clock neared the 10-minute mark, the Lions appeared to secure a big defensive stop, sacking Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on third down. But there was a flag on the play and Detroit defensive end Trey Flowers was called for illegal use of the hands, extending the drive. 

Three plays later, the Packers were in the end zone, slicing Detroit's lead to two. Then, after a Lions punt, Flowers was again called for illegal hands to the face on the ensuing Packers drive, again on the third down, allowing Green Bay to kill the remaining time on the clock before kicking a game-winning field goal. 

The problem with the calls is replays showed both were suspect and the umpire who threw the flags, Jeff Rice, was in poor position to see the act. Rice reacted more to the exaggerated head movement of Packers offensive lineman David Bakhtiari, who later admitted he had implored Rice to watch Flowers more closely. 

It marked the only two times Flowers, known for his strong fundamentals, was flagged for the penalty in his five-year career. Because the game was on primetime television, the officiating errors drew national attention. Locally, fans purchased billboards to express outrage. Additionally, dozens of memes went viral online, including a doctored image of a referee performing the Lambeau Leap. 

More: Quieter game-day atmospheres create communication challenges for Lions, NFL teams

Rice, who is an attorney in Florida, retired from the NFL after last season. But the head official from last year's game, Clete Blakeman, will be in charge again this Sunday, when the Lions return to Lambeau for their annual tilt with the Packers. 

Had it been any other game, there would be little to say about the Blakeman assignment. He is generally viewed as one of the league's top officials, drawing the assignment for Super Bowl 50 in 2016. But in this case, the NFL should have considered the optics and gone with a different option.