The Detroit Lions lost 16-15 to the Tennessee Titans and picked up 17 penalties for 138 yards on the day. Between the second and third quarters, it seemed like either team couldn’t go two plays without a flag being tossed on the field. In total, 29 penalties were called for 221 total yards.
Of course, when a team gets two back-to-back touchdowns nullified by penalties, you’re going to get a lot of mad fans, especially when those seven points turned into three not once, but twice. And one of those would have made all of the difference in the final outcome. Hell, even Eric Ebron subtweeted NFL’s officiating after the game:
Football Has Changed.— Eric Ebron (@Ebron85) September 18, 2016
But for fans and players alike to act like the Lions were jobbed against the Titans is to take an overly simplistic view of the game. The officials didn’t have a good game, but the Lions were unfairly targeted with their bad calls.
Where the refs were wrong
The referees did make a few calls that hurt the Lions, there’s no doubt about it. Ebron scored a touchdown late in the second quarter that would have put the Lions up 16-3 that was nullified by a bad pass interference call. Ebron did place his hand on the defender, but he absolutely did not push off or impeded the Titans’ ability to make a play on the ball. The Lions would proceed to get two more penalties on that drive—both of which were clear holding calls—and had to settle for a field goal.
Additionally, on a day in which the officials threw way too many flags, their biggest mistake of the game actually came when they failed to throw a flag. Matthew Stafford was very clearly roughed when Jurrell Casey barreled into his legs well after the pass was gone. Here’s a look at the rulebook:
Here's the rulebook on Roughing the Passer: pic.twitter.com/QZVG8HjJDJ— Pride Of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) September 18, 2016
As long as the defender wasn’t pushed into the quarterback, this should have been a penalty. Let’s take a look:
While Casey originally stumbles after contact with Taylor Decker, this is not when he comes into contact with Stafford. He clearly takes two or three extra crawls, then purposely hits Stafford below the knee. I’m not saying this is a dirty play—it’s impossible to draw intent from replay—but it was very clearly against the rules. The Lions should have been awarded 15 yards and a first down. Instead, the Lions punted one play later.
To make matters worse with this call, the refs apparently gave Stafford an inaccurate explanation for the no-call. “He (the referee) told me that if he wraps up that it’s OK,” Stafford said after the game. The ref is referring to Note 2 from the rulebook above, which states:
“It is not a foul if the defender swipes, wraps, or grabs a passer in the knee area or below in an attempt to tackle him, provided he does not make forcible contact with the helmet, shoulder, chest, or forearm.”
There’s a case to be made that the defender tries to wrap up Stafford from below, but he also pretty clearly leads into Stafford with his helmet and his shoulder, therefore Rule 2 does not apply.
Where the refs weren’t wrong
You can point to the high number of penalties, but it’s the individual infractions that should be judged. On Sunday, the Lions were called for five infractions that happened before the snap: three offsides calls, one illegal shift and one delay of game. Those penalties are pretty irrefutable. The Lions were also called for five holding penalties on offense and I reviewed each one after the game: they were all legit holding penalties. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the Lions had trouble blocking properly, we saw it all during the preseason. That already accounts for 10 of 17 penalties.
The rest of the calls were subjective penalties like pass interference—one on offense, two on defense—one defensive holding call and an illegal use of hands to the face penalty. Almost all of these—the Ebron call aside—had at least some merit to the call.
And when it came down to deciding the game, the Lions allowed the Titans to drive down the field with only a 5-yard hands to the face penalty, on a play that gained 22 yards anyways. When it came down to it, the Lions lost it on their own.
The Titans got some bad luck, too
While you can spend a lot of time complaining about the 17 calls against the Lions, the Titans had 12 flags of their own. However, the biggest blunders the refs made that hurt the Titans were regarding fumbles. Twice the Detroit Lions fumbled the ball away—and would have lost it to Titans defenders—however, officials ruled forward progress had been stopped, therefore making the plays non-reviewable. Here’s a look at both:
Think Stafford’s knee was already down? It wasn’t.
And then there was this play:
This one is a little harder to see, because CBS didn’t give us a replay, but Theo Riddick clearly fumbles this ball just as he’s getting hit. While the Lions would not go on to score on this drive, they would end up pinning the Titans within their own 10-yard line. Had this fumble been correctly called, the Titans would have already been knocking on field goal range.
While the Lions certainly weren’t given any favors from the refs on Sunday, the Titans were affected just as badly. Most importantly, however, the Lions were given an opportunity to stop the Titans at the end of the game and couldn’t. They were even given the opportunity to score at the end to win the game and they didn’t. That falls on them completely, not the officiating.