September 12, 2010 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Lions just can't catch a break

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is drilled to the ground by Julius Peppers late in the second quarter, fumbling the ball and suffering a shoulder injury. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Chicago -- When is a win not a win?

Well, now the long-suffering football fans in Detroit know the answer to that trivia question, too. It's when a catch isn't a catch, even when most everyone thinks it is, or at least thinks it should be.

But if you thought things couldn't get any worse for the Lions, you thought wrong.

First, they lost their starting quarterback, Matthew Stafford, to another serious shoulder injury in the first half of Sunday's season opener against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Then they lost the game on a controversial call in the final minute, when Calvin Johnson's apparent touchdown reception was waved off by the officials, a ruling that was upheld by a replay review.

"It always hurts to lose," Johnson said. "But especially like that."

Yeah, especially like that.

The touchdown that wasn't

Trailing 19-14 and facing second-and-10 from the Chicago 25 with 31 seconds left, quarterback Shaun Hill lofted a pass to Johnson, who went up to make an acrobatic grab over Bears cornerback Zack Bowman in the end zone. One foot came down, then the other, then Johnson's hip as he fell to the ground. But the football he was palming with his right hand came loose as it hit the ground while he finished his rollover tumble to the turf and prepared to celebrate

Side judge Mike Weatherford raised his arms signaling a touchdown. But others in his crew quickly came over to confer, the play was ruled an incompletion. Referee Gene Steratore explained that decision -- and the ensuing replay -- afterward.

"In order for the catch to be completed, he has got to maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process," he said.

What about the fact Johnson still maintained possession when he was practically seated in the end zone?

"Well," Steratore said, "the process was not finished until he finished that roll and the entire process of the catch."

By rule, he's right. And Johnson certainly isn't the first player victimized by it. He probably won't be the last, either.

All the more reason the NFL needs to sit down and rethink a well-intentioned rule -- the "going to the ground" rule, as it's called -- to avoid punishing good football plays.

"I mean, I figured that if I got two feet and a knee down, to me, it's a catch," Johnson said. "That's why I got up and took off (celebrating.) But it is what it is. And you can't go back."

If it's a catch, it should be a catch. And I'm sorry, but that was a catch. I think even the Bears players would tell you that was a catch, so long as it didn't mean giving back a win they tried all afternoon to give the Lions.

"It's the rules," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. "I mean, sorry for Calvin, good for us, I guess."

Guess so. But if you're already sick and tired of hearing about the "process" by which the Lions lost another game, just think how Johnson must feel. He has lost 38 of his last 41 games, and in almost every imaginable way.

Johnson said his first thought when he came down with the touchdown catch that wasn't Sunday was, "The game is over." His next thought was that "we finally won a game in Chicago." (The Lions have lost 21 consecutive road games, by the way, dating to an October 2007 win at Soldier Field.)

"I didn't know it wasn't a catch until after I sprinted halfway across the field, you know?" Johnson said, still shaking his head in disbelief in the locker room after the game. "I didn't know anything had happened. Clearly, by my reaction, I assumed it was a catch."

He assumed wrong, of course. And he should know better, given the rule and the Lions' run of misfortune in recent years, better known as Murphy's Law.

It wasn't a catch. It wasn't a win. It was just another game to forget for the Lions, if only they could.

"There's no doubt it's frustrating," Johnson said. "But you gotta move past it. Can't do nothing about the call. It is what it is."

Even when it isn't.

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