Niyo: Detroit vs. Everybody? Lions get cold shoulder from refs in loss to Packers

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Green Bay, Wis. – There is no more curse here at Lambeau Field.

But cursing. Oh yes, there was cursing in the visitors’ locker room late Monday night, after a 23-22 loss to the Green Bay Packers that felt every bit like an armed robbery.

“Did you see that (expletive?)” said Darius Slay, the Lions’ Pro Bowl cornerback. “I think all that (expletive) was (expletive,)”

Lions receiver Marvin Jones Jr. can't bring in a reception with the Packers' Will Redmond swatting the ball away in the fourth quarter.

He would know, quite frankly. After seven years in the league – all of them in a Lions uniform – he’s seen this kind of (expletive) before. The fast start. The fluky plays. The excruciating finish. And, of course, the phantom calls.

But on the other side of the locker room, there was defensive end Trey Flowers, seated in a folding chair, still in his full uniform 30 minutes after the game. Still in disbelief, really, after being called for a pair of brutal penalties on the Packers’ two late scoring drives. These kinds of things didn't happen to him when he was in New England, winning two Super Bowls and nearly a third to start his career.

His head coach, Matt Patricia, the man who’d brought Flowers to Detroit last winter to be a linchpin for the Lions’ defense, pulled up a chair next to him and spent a few minutes in quiet conversation. Then Patricia stood up, gave Flowers a hug, and helped him remove his shoulder pads.

Earlier, Flowers had tried to explain just what happened on the field as the Lions watched a two-score lead evaporate in the fourth quarter. But as he tried, he failed. Much like the umpire, Jeff Rice, who threw both flags on Flowers for illegal use of the hands against Packers All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari.

Referee Clete Blakeman explained after the game that Rice saw “prolonged” and “forceful” contact to the “head or neck area,” yet in both cases, replays clearly showed Flowers had his hand firmly on Bakhtiari’s shoulder pad.

“I didn’t think hands to the chest was a penalty,” said Flowers, who according to ESPN had never been called for a hands-to-the-face penalty in a five-year pro career that includes more than 2,300 snaps.

Monday night, with the game -- and first place in the NFC North -- on the line, it apparently was a penalty, however, never mind Bakhtiari’s hand in Flowers’ facemask on one of the plays.

And in both cases, those controversial calls came on failed third-down conversions by the Packers. The first negated an 11-yard sack of Aaron Rodgers that might’ve forced a Green Bay punt, and instead was followed three plays later by a 35-yard touchdown pass that cut the Lions’ lead to 22-20 with 9:03 to play. The second extended the game’s final drive, allowing the Packers to run out the clock before Mason Crosby booted a 23-yard field goal to win it as time expired.

But the fireworks that exploded above Lambeau Field in celebration were only a precursor to the firestorm erupting on social media, as former NFL players and coaches expressed their disgust with the officiating. Even mild-mannered voices like Hall of Famer Tony Dungy chimed in, citing a “bogus” call on Flowers as well as a would-be pass interference call on Packers safety Will Redmond on Marvin Jones midway through the fourth quarter. Former Packers front-office executive Andrew Brandt tweeted, “I’m obviously biased toward the Packers, but the refs are taking this game away from the Lions.”

That only amplified the exasperation coming from analyst Booger McFarland on ESPN’s Monday Night Football telecast, as things unraveled for the Lions

“That’s a bad call,” McFarland said, more than once. “That can’t happen.”

Oh, but it can. Any Lions fan can tell you that. From batted balls to processed catches, a flag picked up in a playoff game or flags thrown that kept them from hosting one of their own, they’ve seen it all.

And even a second-year safety like Tracy Walker, who got hit with a costly penalty of his own for merely playing defense Monday night, can sense the scales of justice seem a bit unbalanced.

“Detroit vs. Everybody -- I’m saying it,” Walker said. “Detroit vs. Everybody. It’s awful. …

“There were some awful calls, but we gotta play through them and we gotta overcome those. And we didn’t, obviously. … I’m extremely pissed off right now. Disappointed. Hurt. We had that game.”

They should have had it, no doubt. But the Lions’ aggressive start, including a 66-yard flea-flicker on the first play from scrimmage, still left too many points on the field as Detroit settled for five Matt Prater field goals Monday. They also left too many men on the field for a Packers’ field-goal attempt, one of several costly miscues they couldn’t blame on the refs. And penalties notwithstanding, the defense still gave up nearly 450 yards to a Green Bay offense that was missing its best playmaker in injured receiver Davante Adams.

“We can’t blame the officials,” said Kenny Golladay, who finished with five catches for 121 yards in the loss. “We don’t even want it in their hands. So it’s on us. Point-blank, period.”

Fair enough, but even he could admit that wasn’t the end of this story Monday night.

Asked about the non-call on Stafford’s deep shot to Jones on what proved to be the Lions’ final possession, Golladay simply shrugged.

 “Like I said, you can’t leave it up to them,” he said, forcing a wry smile. “They make bad calls all the time.”

That's a problem for the NFL that only seems to be getting worse this fall. A $15 billion business is getting short-changed by all the cheap calls. (Former Pro Bowl lineman T.J. Lang, who recently retired after a 10-year career in Green Bay and Detroit, says "I've never seen worse officiating than this year and it’s not even close.") 

And I’m not sure what the answer is, other than to go the route so many coaches have endorsed: A “sky judge” review system that would add an eighth official to the gameday crews with the ability to correct calls using video replay.

The Baltimore Ravens made that proposal last spring after a 2018 season that was marred by officiating errors, culminating in that disastrous missed interference call that cost New Orleans in the NFC championship game. But that idea got nowhere with the NFL’s competition committee in March.

Same goes for Bill Belichick’s annual pitch to make every play “reviewable,” opening up coaches’ challenges to any call or non-call. (Like, say, an illegal hands to the face penalty that Barry Sanders described as "sickening.") Even that’s a double-edged sword, though, as Patricia seemed to acknowledge after Monday’s game, when asked if he’d considered throwing a challenge flag on that would-be interference the refs missed with Redmond hitting Jones early.

Lions running back Kerryon Johnson walks off the field after the loss to Green Bay.

“It looked like one of those plays that wasn’t gonna be a good opportunity for us to challenge,” Patricia said.

That’s mostly because the “clear and obvious” standard the league has adopted for overturning a challenged call seems to be a long shot, at best. Through six weeks, NFL coaches are faring about as well with their challenges as the Tigers’ hitters did against major-league pitching this season.

No, what’s clear and obvious in the wake of another prime-time meltdown in frigid Green Bay is that something has to change. The league knows it, and Monday’s finish all but ensures it’ll be on the agenda when the NFL owners meet this week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Lions, meanwhile, were headed back to Detroit, a .500 team feeling anything but even after this result. 

"It is what it is," Flowers sighed. "I’m just ready to get back to work."

Twitter: @JohnNiyo