Detroit — The Lions indeed got gruesomely jobbed, the latest victims of the NFL’s ludicrous officiating. No big surprise there. The Lions historically find creative ways to lose, and officials increasingly find creative ways to screw things up.
That part isn’t even open to debate. Crying about the refs usually is a loser’s lament, but in this case, in the aftermath of the Lions’ 23-22 loss at Green Bay Monday night, it merits some healthy shrieking.
First of all, let’s be clear. The Lions didn’t lose solely because of botched penalty calls. But to dismiss the issue and chalk it up as another classic Lions collapse is dishonest and cheap. Their chance at victory was greatly diminished by one particularly egregious call, a hands-to-the-face penalty on Trey Flowers with 1:36 left that gave Aaron Rodgers and the Packers a first down and a chance to run out the clock and kick the winning field goal on the final play.
Just like that, the Lions (2-2-1) dropped from first place in the NFC North to last place, and the outcry across NFL America was loud and intense, from commentators to fans to players, current and former. The league has an officiating problem, clearly, and the Lions have a contender credibility column, dropping another close game to a top team.
So what is the NFL going to do about it? Not much, although executive vice president Troy Vincent at least admitted Tuesday the final penalty was a mistake. Once again, there will be serious discussion about rules and replay reviews, and you can bet another layer of interpretation will be added and the game will become ever more complicated
The more immediate question is, what are the Lions going to do about it? We can spend time recounting all the high-profile officiating controversies they’ve endured, from Calvin Johnson’s failure-to-complete-the-process, to the non-pass interference on the Cowboys in their playoff victory over the Lions, to an erroneous facemask penalty that allowed Rodgers and the Packers another shot at a winning Hail Mary.
The Lions and Matt Patricia can spend no time recounting any of that. The Vikings come to town Sunday for another vital division clash, so Patricia quickly moved on, as did Matthew Stafford. Would fans prefer one of them to smash a podium and verbally shred the league? Maybe, although it would open the Lions to charges of excuse-making and blame-shifting.
The NFL has to own this officiating crisis eventually. Right now, the Lions have to eat it.
They should be angry — at the refs, at themselves, at the circumstance. They should be frustrated by the league’s arrogance, in half-heartedly addressing at least four crucial penalties against the Lions, including another Flowers hands-to-the-face with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. That was a crusher, negating a sack and giving the Packers a first down. Rodgers then flipped a 35-yard touchdown pass to Allen Lazard, slicing the Lions’ lead to 22-20.
In three seasons as a New England Patriot, Flowers never was called for that type of penalty. With the Lions, he picked up two in one quarter. He was distraught after the game, explaining he put his hands on offensive tackle David Bakhtiari’s upper chest, and replays confirmed it. Afterward, Bakhtiari also confirmed he’d lobbied the umpire moments earlier to watch for the infraction.
Safety Tracy Walker, who was called for a dubious personal foul, was compelled to dig up the “Detroit Vs. Everybody” mantra that can be unifying, but also self-defeating and non-productive. The Lions have led in every game this season but withered in the fourth quarters against Arizona, Kansas City and Green Bay. When that keeps happening, it can’t be all bad breaks.
They led the Packers 13-0 after a brilliant start by Stafford, but again didn’t get their running game going. They got great field position after three Green Bay turnovers but settled for field goals. Matt Prater kicked five, and it could’ve been enough if the last Flowers penalty wasn’t called. The Packers would’ve faced a fourth down on the Lions’ 16 with 1:36 remaining, and instead kept the ball to the end.
There also was a missed pass interference when Marvin Jones clearly was roughed up. Patricia could’ve used the new challenge rule, but that’s another case of the league pretending it fixed a problem and really did nothing. In the past three weeks, challenges to pass-interference (or no pass interference) calls have been rejected 24 of 25 times.
Patricia declined to complain Tuesday, which can be unfulfilling for fans but is the right approach. Now, should someone from the Lions — Bob Quinn, Martha Ford, Roary — be blasting some mealy-mouthed NFL executive in the ears? Absolutely.
“Obviously, there were some calls in the game that everyone’s focused on right now,” Patricia said. “I’m focused on the ones we have to do right, on the field through execution and coaching and playing. I think if you go through a game and you’re relying on the officials to tell you whether or not you won, it’s not going to turn out in a favorable manner more times than not.”
That may be true, but it’s also an oversimplification. You’ve heard it before — don’t leave your fate in the referees’ hands. In other words, be sure you have a big enough lead so brutal calls don’t cost you the game.
The problem with that argument is, every NFL team basically puts its fate in the officials’ hands virtually every game. This past weekend, nine of the 14 games were decided by seven points or less. One score, one play, one call separates most teams on most weekends.
Detroit News reporters Justin Rogers and John Niyo breakdown all the things that went wrong in Monday night's loss to the Packers. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Obviously, the Lions don’t make that one play often enough, even if it appeared they made two key plays to stop Rodgers. I hate to say it, but the NFL’s safety guidelines (rightly instituted) add to officiating blunders. Any time a ref sees a player’s head snap back, or a player lay motionless after a hit, it’s likely called a penalty. It’s designed to protect players but it also rewards acting, and Rodgers is one of the best at drawing calls. (Apparently Bakhtiari is learning well).
Yes, that type of not-so-subtle favoritism exists in the NFL, from Rodgers to Tom Brady to other greats. The Packers lead the league with 501 yards gained on opponents’ penalties. The Lions are last, gaining 234 in penalty yardage.
I’m not sure exactly how the league fixes its officiating issue, although fining, suspending and firing poor-performing refs should be an option. I do know there’s one way for the Lions to solve their contender credibility issue. They have to grab big games like this as if they fully expect to win. Patricia has instilled toughness in this team, but it won’t be fully confirmed until the Lions overcome everything and anything, from their own mistakes to ridiculous referee gaffes.