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Quick thoughts on the Lions' 27-23 loss to the Packers, Caldwell's late game decisions

Some brief observations on what went down on Thursday night.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

I'm going to make the player observations brief this week, as there's a lot of coaching things I want to get into.

  • Matthew Stafford played another outstanding game against the Packers. He made some big time throws, including his last completion of the day: a 29-yard rope to TJ Jones that converted a third-and-13 and allowed the Lions to run off most of the remaining clock.
  • LaAdrian Waddle didn't play much on Thursday, but earned the goat of the game. He committed two costly penalties late in the game. It doesn't look like the time spent on the bench has done him any good.
  • I don't know how he does it, but Calvin Johnson manages to impress me more and more with some of his touchdown catches.
  • The Lions finally got Ameer Abdullah going in the running game. He hit a career high 67 rushing yards against the Packers and his 38-yard scamper was the longest rush for the Lions on the season.

Now let's get to Jim Caldwell. There was a strange post-game narrative that Caldwell was responsible for "taking the foot off the gas" and being too conservative down the stretch. I guess when a team scores 17 points in the first quarter and just six the rest of the way, that becomes the leading theory, but I completely disagree with it. I have been a huge critic of Caldwell in the past, and people who know me know I still think Caldwell calls games in a cowardly manner more often than not.

But this wasn't true of the game against the Packers at all. Caldwell actually showed the opposite in the fourth quarter. Up by just six points, Caldwell and the Lions faced a fourth-and-2 from the Packers' 38-yard line. Last season, facing a very similar situation against the Cowboys in the playoffs, Caldwell elected to punt. Eleven plays later the Cowboys scored and the Lions were bounced from the playoffs.

This time, Caldwell elected to go for it. The Lions easily converted, were able to bleed another three minutes off the clock and added a field goal to push the lead to two possessions. This was the call of a correctly aggressive coach, and it should have paid off.

If you're looking for a reason the Lions failed to score after the first quarter, look at the offense itself. After the Lions took a 17-0 lead, Detroit went three-and-out on three consecutive drives. And it wasn't because of conservative playcalling (which is not even Jim Caldwell's duty, by the way). The Lions ran the ball just three times in those drives, electing to pass six times. Unfortunately, Matthew Stafford was sacked three times on the day, and the offense kept putting themselves in bad positions with negative plays and penalties.

Maybe some are upset that Caldwell decided to run clock at the end of the game, essentially handing the ball back to Aaron Rodgers with 20 seconds left. But, again, I think Caldwell made the right decision. He bet on his defense preventing Green Bay from scoring at least 40 yards away from field goal position with less than 30 seconds left. His perceived gamble nearly proved right, but a highly improbable play made him look bad.

But consider the alternative. Sure Caldwell could have given Stafford the green light to air it out. But an incomplete pass would have been disastrous. Instead of giving Rodgers 20 seconds to win the game, he would have had 60 -- an eternity by Rodgers' standards. Of course, if he would have done that, and the end result was similar, he'd be equally panned the next morning. Sometimes you can't win as a coach.

However, Caldwell's slate was not completely clean on Thursday. His biggest mistake on the day was also the most costly. In defending the final play, Caldwell expected a second consecutive lateral play from the Packers and did not send in his Hail Mary personnel. As a result, the play was horribly defended.

At first, I was sympathetic toward Caldwell. After all, the Packers had just run a lateral play, and even though it hadn't worked, it's fair to think they may try again. But on the Packers' first desperation play, they started from their own 21-yard line. There is no chance of a Hail Mary reaching the end zone from there; a lateral play makes sense with just six seconds remaining.

But after the facemask call, the Packers had the ball 61-yards away from the endzone. And while that would make for a long pass by Hail Mary standards, everyone in that stadium knew that Rodgers had the arm if the Packers wanted to go that route. There's also the fact that the Packers pretty much telegraphed they were going to throw a Hail Mary.

Here's the pre-snap look during the Packers' lateral play:

lateral lineup

The Packers have just three wide receivers in the game and one tight end. Now here's how they looked on the Hail Mary:

hail mary lineup

The Packers now have four wide receivers on the field and one tight end lined up wide. More importantly, three of the potential receivers are bunched at the top. When three or more receivers are bunched together in a situation like this, it screams Hail Mary.

Even if Caldwell didn't see what personnel the Packers had out there, the formation lineup gave away the Packers' intentions. Had Caldwell noticed this, he could have used the Lions' final timeout and adjusted his defense. He didn't, and the Lions lost.