The Detroit Lions were one yard away from taking the lead over the Dallas Cowboys early in the fourth quarter. Set up on a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line down just 10-6 to Dallas, the Lions handed the ball off to Jamaal Williams. He promptly fumbled and Dallas recovered. The Lions would never get anywhere near as close to the end zone, as the Cowboys ran away with the rest of the game, winning 24-6.
But let’s rewind a minute, because before the Jamaal Williams fumble, a key play happened. On a well-designed screen play, Jared Goff found Brock Wright, who ran all the way down to the goal line on a 17-yard gain. At first, it looked like Wright scored, but upon replay it was clear he was short of the goal line. Officials spotted the ball right at the 1-yard line, while replay made it look like Wright was clearly inside the 1-yard line.
FYI, Wright was short, not close. pic.twitter.com/BuzLlqnu0m— John Whiticar (@Whiticar) October 23, 2022
Which begs the question: Why didn’t Lions head coach Dan Campbell challenge the play? Maybe you get lucky and they call it a touchdown. Even if you don’t, the ball will get moved up a foot or two, making it even easier to score a touchdown in four ensuing plays.
Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that. Let’s take a closer look at the rulebook to explore why.
The Lions were not going to win the challenge no matter what
Brock gained a first down on the play, and he clearly did not score a touchdown on the play. Therefore, the Lions can’t win this challenge.
A look at the reviewable plays section of the NFL rulebook notes that with spotting of the ball, only two things are subject to a potentially successful challenge.
From Rule 15:
ARTICLE 4. PLAYS GOVERNED BY THE GOAL LINE.
Item 1. Ball breaking the plane of the goal line. Whether any part of the ball broke the plane of the goal line while in player possession and before the ball should have been declared dead.
ARTICLE 7. PLAYS GOVERNED BY THE LINE TO GAIN. The dead-ball spot is reviewable to determine whether it was short of, at, or beyond the line to gain.
In other words, the Lions can only “win” a spotting of the ball challenge if it overturns a ruling (or lack of ruling) of a first down or a touchdown. It was clearly a first down (and called a first down). It was clearly not a touchdown (and called short of a touchdown). In that essence, the play was called correctly.
That said, the spot was not good. Unfortunately, there is a very specific stipulation in the rulebook under Article 4.
(2) The dead-ball spot is not reviewable to determine solely whether it should be closer to or further from the goal line.
That’s your key right there. The Lions would not have won a challenge even if, upon replay, the ball clearly closer to the goal line than officials marked it.
But wait... there’s still a debate to be had
Let’s say the Lions did challenge the play, and tell refs they think he scored a touchdown. At that point, officials would go under the hood. They very well may have determined conclusively that the ball was inside the 1-yard line, and that would result in the officials actually moving the ball closer. Detroit would still lose the challenge and a timeout, but the ball would move closer.
So here’s the debate:
Would you rather have first-and-goal from the 1-yard with all of your timeouts and challenges still available?
Would you rather have the ball inside the 1-yard line with two timeouts and just one remaining challenge left for the rest of the game?
In my opinion, the Lions were still in a really, really good position set up first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. There was no need for an unnecessary challenge that you would’ve lost, and it would’ve cost you a timeout that you very well may have needed in a close game in the fourth quarter.