7 totally unique ways NFL officials have robbed Detroit Lions this decade
Nation gets taste of Lions misery as officials butcher calls on 'MNF'
DETROIT – The Detroit Lions have been one of the most incompetent franchises in professional sports for the better part of 50 years, but they've also fallen victim to more than their fair share of misfortune.
It's been going on for decades, but the entire nation got a taste of that rotten "Same Old Lions" luck on "Monday Night Football," when a series of phantom penalties took a potentially season-changing victory out of Detroit's hands and gifted it to the Green Bay Packers.
For Lions fans, it wasn't only maddening to lose the game. It was a familiar injustice that will certainly be answered with a half-hearted apology from the NFL that allows the rest of the country to move on and forget about that team from Detroit.
If you're just catching on to the fact that the Lions have fallen victim to some of the most controversial officiating moments in NFL history, here's a look at the different ways referees have robbed this franchise.
Backbreaking calls -- one after another
Game details: Oct. 14, 2019, vs. Green Bay Packers
Let's start with Monday night. Unlike many of the items on this list, the Lions-Packers game didn't have any obscure rule interpretations or one big moment that stood out as game-changing. Instead, there was a consistent string of questionable calls, with every single one going the Packers' way.
Most notable were the two phantom "illegal hands to the face" penalties on defensive lineman Trey Flowers. In the first instance, the Lions had sacked Aaron Rodgers on third down to set up an obvious punting situation.
Detroit was going to get the ball back with a nine-point lead and less than 10 minutes remaining on the clock. In other words, the Lions were going to win and take over first place in the NFC North.
Instead, a late flag was thrown, and the Packers were given a free first down. Replay showed Flowers clearly did not have his hands in the face or neck area, but on the chest of the offensive lineman.
Two plays later, the Packers scored a touchdown to pull within two points.
The second hands to the face penalty came on the final drive of the game. Detroit had stopped the Packers for a medium-length field goal attempt and would have at least 90 seconds remaining to get in field goal range for the win if the Packers converted.
Once again, a flag was thrown. Once again, a hands to the face penalty moved the chains and allowed the Packers to run the clock all the way down and kick a chip shot game-winner.
Replay showed the flag should not have been thrown. What a shocker.
There was also a clear pass interference that went uncalled on Detroit's final drive that would have moved the ball comfortably into field goal range for Matt Prater. Instead, the Lions punted.
Oh yeah, and there was a Kerryon Johnson catch for a first down overturned by replay because they said he never had possession of the ball. He took three steps, turned upfield and switched hands before the ball fell out, but still, there was apparently inconclusive evidence that it wasn't a catch, so the call was overturned.
If that was the Packers' Aaron Jones making a critical third-down reception, does replay find inconclusive evidence that it was incomplete? Having watched hundreds of Lions games, I'm guessing not.
There were so many missed calls that the Packers having 13 players on the field doesn't even seem like that big of a deal (it was not called). Nobody even cares that Allen Lazard was clearly down short of the end zone on Green Bay's second touchdown.
This game was unique in that there were almost too many missed calls to count, and nearly all went in favor of Green Bay.
Aaron Rodgers facemask game
Game details: Dec. 3, 2015, vs. Green Bay Packers
This isn't the first time the Lions have gotten robbed against the Packers.
The Lions had the Packers beat at Ford Field in 2015 when Rodgers had to throw a Hail Mary from his own 21-yard line with six seconds remaining.
Green Bay ran a lateral play, but the Lions tackled it for no gain. The game was over. No time was left on the clock.
Except there was a late flag. A facemask penalty was called on Devin Taylor. Not only did Rodgers have nobody else to lateral to and no chance to get anywhere near the end zone, but the facemask penalty wasn't even a facemask.
Taylor's thumb grazed one of the bars of Rodgers' facemask, but he didn't grab it or even move Rodgers' head. He grabbed the shoulder pad and pulled him down. But a dramatic acting job from Rodgers was enough to coax a flag, and he threw a 61-yard touchdown pass on the next play to win the game.
Green Bay never led until after the clock hit quadruple zeroes, and never should have led after that.
Completing the process
Game details: Sept. 12, 2010, vs. Chicago Bears
The most famous botched call against the Lions came in the final moments of the first game in 2010, when the Lions stormed back to beat division rival Chicago.
Well, actually they didn't.
Shaun Hill threw what appeared to be a go-ahead touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson with 24 seconds left in the game. This was before all the ridiculous and obscure catch rules in the NFL. Johnson caught the ball, got both feet down in the end zone, fell to the ground and started celebrating.
It wasn't even a question that this was a touchdown. The official standing five yards away from the play called it a touchdown immediately. Johnson got both feet down, dragged both feet and then landed on his knee. All in bounds.
Except there was some arbitrary process of the catch rule that nobody had ever heard of. Well, it became a big topic in the NFL afterward and a whole set of rules were put into place to define a catch. All it took was the officials costing Detroit a game to spark one of the most convoluted rules of the era.
Playoff game non-pass interference
Game details: Jan. 4, 2015, vs. Dallas Cowboys
For most teams, this would be considered the most egregious officiating mistake of the decade, especially since it ended up being the most costly.
Detroit made the playoffs in 2014 and went into Dallas for the wildcard game. The Lions held a 20-17 lead with under 8:30 remaining when Matthew Stafford threw a pass to Brandon Pettigrew that resulted in a pass interference flag.
It was pretty clearly pass interference. Anthony Hitchens was running blind to the ball trying to keep up with Pettigrew, and not only did he turn Pettigrew's right shoulder, he also impeded him from coming back to the ball, which was underthrown.
Well, the official correctly threw a flag. They also announced the penalty. But inexplicably, as boos rained down from the Cowboy Stadium crowd, the refs got together and somehow decided to change their minds.
The flag was picked up, without an explanation. The Lions punted. Dallas scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive and moved on to the Division Series.
The penalty would have put the Lions around Dallas' 25-yard line with a three-point lead and under eight minutes to play. Detroit likely would have won its second playoff game in 60 years. Instead, it was just another controversial finish that nobody outside Detroit cared about by the next morning.
Challenge flag debacle
Game details: Nov. 22, 2012, vs Houston Texans
Most people don't remember this game because the Lions were smack-dab in the middle of an eight-game losing streak. It's not like this game would have changed anything other than the Lions' draft position, but it was still a circus act.
By the way, it resulted in another rule change by the NFL.
The Lions were beating the Texans 24-14 in the third quarter when Justin Forsett ran the ball for a simple 7-yard gain. He was tackled and clearly on the ground when he decided he was going to stand up and just spring to the end zone.
Every human being on planet Earth knew he was down. Except, apparently, the people who get paid to know he was down.
Replay confirmed it wasn't even close. Forsett's elbow was down. His knee was down. He might as well have been doing a snow angel on the Ford Field turf so many of his joints hit the ground.
But the officials couldn't even correctly call the most fundamental rule in football: a tackle.
Head coach Jim Schwartz was rightly incensed by the call and threw his challenge flag. Here's where the NFL's ridiculous rule comes into play: Since it was a scoring play and gets automatically reviewed, you can't challenge it.
But instead of just telling coaches, "No, you can't throw the challenge flag, pick it back up," the league implemented a proverbial hissy fit rule that stated throwing a challenge flag makes the play unreviewable.
So, because the officials missed a call so obvious the coach threw the challenge flag immediately, the rule is to knowingly keep the incorrect call just to punish Schwartz? Yeah, that rule didn't last long.
By the way, the Lions went on to lose in overtime, which was actually a blessing. Detroit got the No. 5 pick in the draft by finishing 4-12, and drafted Ezekiel Ansah.
Batting the ball out of the end zone
Game details: Oct. 5, 2015, vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Lions actually have a history of controversial losses on "Monday Night Football," including a near-upset of the Seahawks in 2015.
Detroit was 0-3 and needed a win to have any hope of salvaging the season. Surprisingly, the Lions played well enough to stay in the game, and with under 2 minutes left, they were in the red zone facing a 13-10 deficit.
Stafford hit Johnson for what was almost a touchdown, but Johnson fumbled the ball into the end zone on the 1-yard line.
As the ball was bouncing around the end zone, Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright clearly batted the ball out of bounds. He never made an attempt to secure the ball, instead tapping it with an open palm to ensure the Lions couldn't recover for a touchdown.
Nobody from the Lions was even in the area, so they weren't going to recover the ball. It should have been a lucky break, because purposely batting the ball is a penalty.
The rule was clear: A player cannot bat a loose ball that has touched the ground if it is in either end zone. There's no debate about whether Wright purposely batted the ball out of the end zone. He literally admitted so after the game. He didn't know the rules, and apparently, neither did the officials.
Detroit should have gotten the ball with a penalty half the distance to the goal, making it first and goal from inside the 1-yard line.
A screengrab on ESPN showed an official at the back of the end zone, staring right at the play as Wright batted the ball out. Nothing was called. The Lions lost the game and fell to 0-4.
Game details: Sept. 24, 2017, vs. Atlanta Falcons
The most similar situation to this season happened in 2017 when the Lions were 2-0 and appeared to be on their way to victory against the Falcons at home.
Trailing by four points with the clock winding down, Stafford hit Golden Tate for a 1-yard touchdown on a slant route. Replay showed the ball was very close to the goal line, but much more obvious plays have been deemed inconclusive and stood as called.
This one, however, went Atlanta's way, and the call was overturned. Even though the ball was snapped with 12 seconds left and the play ended with at least nine seconds remaining, a 10-second runoff was applied, and the game ended without the Lions getting to snap the ball again.
In essence, the rule makes sense. If the refs miss a call that otherwise would have resulted in time running off the clock, there should be a runoff, even if that means the end of the game. Teams shouldn't get to save time because officials make the wrong call on the field.
But this was a unique situation. The play was 1 yard away from the line of scrimmage and the Lions probably could have gotten another play off. They never got that chance, however, and the game ended, once again, with controversy.
By the way, the Lions missed the playoffs by one game -- finishing behind the Falcons. If that ruling went the other way, Detroit would have earned a wildcard spot.
Monday night's game in Green Bay felt just as meaningful, and it's possible Lions fans have to live with that costing them a spot in the playoffs once again.
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