The Lions lost a close game Last Monday night in Seattle (where the Seahawks have still lost only twice in the now three plus seasons since Russell Wilson entered the league), after looking like they were going to pull it out at the end.
With less than two minutes to go, on 3rd and 1 from the Seattle 11, Lions quarterback Matt Stafford hit Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, who after the catch was en route for what looked like would be the go ahead touchdown.
As big as this was, and often unmentioned, the game still wouldn’t be over after the touchdown. Down by four, 17-13, the Seahawks would not have enough time to mount a perfect two minute type drill. But with 1:45 left and two timeouts to save them an extra 30 seconds or so or use the middle of the field more, they still had a pretty good shot. And under Russell Wilson, particularly at home, they’ve been pretty good at pulling out games at the end.
But just before the ball broke the plane of the goal line, the Seahawks Kam Chancellor knocked it loose, causing a fumble that rolled through to the back of the end zone.
The ball was about to go out of bounds, and no one was even near it: except for Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, who, not wanting to risk even the theoretical possibility of anything bizarre happening (such as trying to recover it and muffing it himself while somehow keeping it in the end zone), helped it along by a very purposeful slight right jab (video).
Which is illegal – although Wright clearly didn’t know, and even head coach Pete Carroll said he hadn’t been aware of the rule. And it should have been first down Lions ball inside the 1 yard line.
At which point, trailing 13-10, the Lions likely – but, against that Seattle defense that but for this last drive had essentially badly bottled them up all night – very much not assuredly, would have scored a TD (and taken critical time off the clock), or probably kicked a field goal. Nice Pro Football Talk column here, but that field goal doesn’t necessarily mean the game goes into overtime:
The Seahawks had two timeouts left, and would have used them immediately on any two staying in bounds running plays. A Detroit penalty that stopped the clock and that Seattle declined, would probably have also sufficed to save them a timeout. (Though Seattle likely would have taken it since any penalty was likely to push Detroit away from the goal line, but only depending on what down it was; for instance, likely figuring that after a failed third try in a row the Lions wouldn’t dare risk losing it all on yet a fourth short yardage attempt for the win, why give them a free third down play with still a “gimme” field goal as backup.) And any attempted pass play that led to an incomplete, or outside run or pass that went out of bounds, would have completely frozen the game clock and operated as effectively as another timeout.
Thus it’s likely that if Detroit tried a field goal on fourth down, Seattle would have had at least somewhere near a minute, and maybe about 1:20 or so left. Which in turn – although 1:20 is better – are both enough for a quick drive to get into field goal range and win the game even before it gets to overtime.
But, perhaps in an irony in a league that, particularly this year, seems to call – or maybe it just sees – way too many penalties), the penalty never got called. And the Seahawks were awarded the ball out at the 20 yard line for a touchback.
The Lions would still have an outside shot to tie, since they could stop the clock on two plays with their last two timeouts; and after a Seahawks punt if they could stop them, would have about 45 seconds, or around 1:20 if the Seahawks threw incomplete. (On average they wouldn’t be in quite as good a situation as the Seahawks would have been had the Lions been re-rewarded the ball inside the 1 and then kicked a 4th down field goal: Very short field goals take a few seconds – punts take longer – and the Seahawks were in a situation where running clock was probably paramount, while inside the 1 the Lions focus was on trying to score a touchdown and win. Though on the other hand, they may have come up with slightly better field position after the punt versus a post field goal kickoff.)
But on a 3rd and 2 the Seahawks connected on an unnecessarily long pass (though that was the play that was apparently the most open), and essentially ended the game.
Then ensued a near firestorm controversy about how the team was robbed, with the Lions giving hints of perhaps feeling a little bit sorry for themselves for having gotten somewhat “screwed” by the refs’ call, or, in this case, non call.
But the mild batting of the ball by K.J. Wright was a technical rule fluke that otherwise had no real bearing on the play; one that simply would have given the Lions an unexpected gift.
Sure, the refs made a mistake. But that mistake didn’t screw the Lions over. It kept the Lions from getting miraculously lucky on some fluke rule that the opposing player, among many, didn’t know about.
They still “should” have been given that opportunity to win it inside the one yard line, under the rules. But they also legitimately lost the game. Holding onto the football is perhaps the most important aspect of the game, and the Lions did not, at the most critical time, while on the other hand they had nothing to do with the fluke rule or K.J reaching the ball and electing to unknowingly (rulewise) bat it out rather than just run through it.
In essence the Lions got rescued by a fluke and otherwise completely irrelevant rule and circumstance. But then they got immediately unrescued by a mistake in judgment by the referees in either not being clear on the rule themselves, or not seeing that, in so far as there can be an “intentional batting” of the ball, Wright’s action’s were intentional.
Rescued by circumstances outside of one’s control and performance, then unrescued, is not getting screwed.
Sure, it was unlucky. But it was only unlucky because it was first lucky for them for Wright to even get to the ball before it went out of the end zone anyway, and do what many players in that situation, playing “heads up” but unaware of the rule, might have done; and thus make sure that a ball going out of the end zone – that but for Wright touching it was going to anyway -did so.
So they got lucky and unlucky. Yet almost all that’s seemingly been focused on is the unlucky and fairly random part, and not how it that part was only created by an equal amount of completely unexpected luck to begin with a moment earlier. And how driving for the go ahead touchdown, they fumbled the ball, and lost the game, not the referees.
The rulebook, through obscure application, almost rescued them. And the refs, through then botching that application, failed to do so, in a blown call. But the game was blown by the Lions, not the refs.