Sunday marked the most recent case of the Detroit Lions being on the butt-end of a bad call by the officials. Losing a game on a tough or even bad official ruling is nothing new in the NFL and nothing unique to the Lions. As fans of a certain team, we tend to think our fan suffering is unique.
However, there actually is something to be said about the Lions’ ability to suffer where no team has suffered before. They are pioneers on the path of set to officiating hell.
As our own Chris Perfett has been known to say, the Lions have become the guinea pig in the NFL’s ongoing beta-testing of their rulebook. Detroit’s suffering from the refs doesn’t just come from an ill-timed poor pass interference call or a missed holding penalty. No, when the officials screw the Lions, they make sure to do it with the most esoteric rules from the margins of the rulebook.
During our postgame show on Facebook Live, in the aftermath of what may now be deemed the Golden Tate rule, a viewer asked me where this ranks among the worst screwjobs in Lions history. I gave a hastily thrown together answer, but now after thinking about it, I’m ready to do this.
Here are the top six Lions screwjobs:
6. Jim Schwartz rule
We kick off the list with the easiest example of the Lions’ beta-tester status. The NFL had just changed their replay system to include automatic replays for all scoring plays and turnovers.
The NFL was feeling a little insecure about the rule change amidst criticism it would slow down the game. As a result, they implemented a bone-headed rule that if a coach decided to challenge a play that was already automatically reviewed, not only would they be penalized, but the play would then be unreviewable.
On Thanksgiving in 2012, Jim Schwartz did exactly that. He challenged a play in which Justin Forsett was obviously down for a minimal gain, but he decided to get up and run for an 81-yard touchdown. It would have been an easy overturn, but the idiotic rule prevented the refs from making a correct call. The Lions would end up losing the game in overtime, and in 2013, the NFL passed the “Jim Schwartz Rule” to fix their mistake.
5. The Phantom Facemask
This one is still a little fresh, and anytime a penalty like this comes against a rival, it’s bound to hurt a little more. But the truth is, without the play that followed (that won’t be mentioned here), this bad call was pretty normal by officiating standards.
Carl Cheffers earned a name for himself when his crew called Devin Taylor for a facemask penalty on this play during a Thursday Night Football game:
Had the penalty not been called, the game would have ended with Lions win. Aaron Rodgers had thrown a pass, then received a lateral and was tackled by Taylor as time expired. As a result of the penalty, the Packers had one more play and they succeeded on it.
The loss halted a three-game winning streak for the Lions, who managed to pull themselves out of a 1-7 hole to finish 7-9. Had this game gone the Lions way, along with a controversy from earlier in the season (which we’ll talk about shortly), the Lions could have actually made the postseason in 2015.
4. The Golden Tate runoff
I don’t need to go into much detail here, but this loss was brutal for several reasons. The Lions were inches away from getting the proverbial “no signature wins” monkey off of their back after failing against the league’s elite last year. Detroit would have been the only undefeated NFC team remaining in the league had this one gone their way. And the Lions themselves pointed out the hypocrisy of the 10-second runoff rule.
The officials may have gotten the call right on the field, but that has already become an afterthought. Should the Lions have had one more second on the clock? Is this 10-second runoff rule really in the spirit of sportsmanship? Is 10 seconds too long of a runoff in today’s high-paced game? I don’t think the NFL is about to change the runoff rule, but the Lions certainly created a conversation here.
3. The Batted Ball
This one hurts me a little more than the average Lions fan, as I was in attendance in Seattle on this chilly Monday night in 2015.
The Lions headed into Seattle with little hope of a win. They were 0-3 and looked downright awful in all of September. But thanks to a pretty solid defensive effort, including a scoop-and-score by Caraun Reid, the Lions found themselves in an unlikely situation: An opportunity to pick up a huge road victory in Seattle.
The Lions started 91 yards away from the end zone, needing only a field goal to send the game to overtime. But as the Lions marched into Seahawks territory, it became clear they weren’t trying to tie the game, they were going to win it.
But then disaster struck when Calvin Johnson had the ball punched out by Kam Chancellor just as Megatron was reaching the goal line. It was a heartbreaking loss, and the Lions could blame no one but themselves.
UNTIL A WILD RULE EMERGED.
I fancy myself a pretty knowledgable person when it comes to the NFL rulebook. I knew about the 10-second runoff and mentioned it on Twitter well before it came up on the broadcast.
But I had never heard of this rule in my entire life, and I didn’t hear about it until well after I had left CenturyLink Field that night. It is illegal for a player to purposely bat the ball out of their own end zone to prevent a fumble recovery, and it is 100 percent clear that’s what happened.
Had the rule been properly applied, the Lions would have had the ball back at the 1-yard line, first and goal, with plenty of time to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Instead, they were 0-4 and just weeks away from the team completely imploding.
2. “Homecookin’” in Dallas
This was by far the most impactful “screwjob” in Lions history. The Lions came out dominating the Dallas Cowboys in the 2014 Wild Card Game of the postseason. Detroit jumped out to a 17-7 lead at halftime and looked to be in control of the game.
They were attempting to weather the storm of a Cowboys comeback, when the Lions offense had crossed over into Cowboys territory with a three-point lead and just 8:25 left to go in the game.
The Lions were facing a third-and-1 and executed a well-disguised play-action pass. Brandon Pettigrew got past his linebacker on a seam-route and Stafford delivered the ball to Pettigrew’s back shoulder, while the linebacker continued in pursuit with his back to the play:
The officials called, and announced to the stadium, that pass interference was committed by the Cowboys here, giving Detroit a first-and-10 at the Cowboys’ 30-yard line.
Seconds later, official Pete Morelli announced that there is no flag on the play, and redacts the penalty without further explanation. The flag never happened. There was no penalty.
The Lions would punt the ball. The Cowboys would score a touchdown. And the Lions would remain winless in the postseason since the 1991 season.
This play, which resulted in the most popular Pride Of Detroit post of all time, would be No. 1 on most team’s list, but that honor has to go to...
1. The Calvin Johnson Rule
The words “Calvin Johnson Rule” still send a shiver down my spine and a pit at the bottom of my stomach.
This play is No. 1 on the list not just because of how it robbed the Lions of a victory, but how it forever changed the landscape of what it is to make a catch. This is where that horrid phrase “process of the catch” was birthed. This is where Mike Pereira’s career took off. This is where the NFL’s rulebook stopped being a simple list of guidelines and started to become advanced literature.
On a day in which Matthew Stafford’s sophomore season was ultimately cut short, the Shaun Hill threw the go-ahead touchdown to Calvin Johnson with just 24 seconds remaining at Soldier Field. After the Lions were done celebrating, it would come to light that Johnson’s catch was ruled incomplete.
The call would be reviewed and just about everyone outside of Mike Pereira thought this was an easy overturn. Watch again, if you dare:
The call was upheld, the Lions would fail to score on the next two plays, and Detroit’s season was over before it started.
This will forever remain the worst Lions screwjob in history. It has everything. A rule that no one knew at the time (and may have been improperly used). A ripple-effect across the NFL that forced the league into making big changes to their rulebook. A crushing loss to a rival that sent the team spiraling.
The Calvin Johnson rule remains one of the most befuddling calls in the history of the NFL, and we’re still feeling the effects of it today, over seven years later.