The Lions had held down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense throughout much of a rivalry game on Monday Night Football. With a combination of solid coverage and Packer red zone mistakes, they’d overcome a handful of stalled-out scoring drives to lead their NFC North rival 22-13 with 10 minutes left in the game.
And then Rodgers roared back — with the help of some flags and no-calls from the officiating crew that ranged from questionable to outright destructive.
The Packers rallied to a 23-22 victory in Week 6 that put them atop their division while casting Detroit to the bottom. It didn’t come without controversy. The Lions found themselves on the unfortunate side of four different late calls that made the home team’s comeback a little easier and enraged Barry Sanders in the process.
That is sickening... the @NFL needs to look at a way to prevent that from happening. Two phantom hands to the face calls really hurts us tonight. Yes, we could have scored TDs, but @Lions played too well to have the game end this way. #DETvsGB @espn— Barry Sanders (@BarrySanders) October 15, 2019
Two phantom illegal hands to the face calls were the headliners for Monday night’s officiating ineptitude, but those weren’t the only decisions that derailed the Lions’ road to victory. Detroit’s inability to turn early drives into touchdowns left the door open for a Packers comeback at Lambeau Stadium. Some bad calls served as the powerful wind that kept it from swinging shut.
There was a long list of iffy calls throughout Monday’s game, but none were as costly as the ones that gutted the Lions in the fourth quarter. Here’s how it played out.
Detroit was actually hosed by four different calls in the fourth quarter
The decisions ranged from questionable to completely unacceptable, beginning with:
1. The debatable incomplete pass (that was probably the right call)
It started with 12:26 to play. The Lions faced third-and-2 from inside field goal range when Matthew Stafford fired a quick pass to a streaking Kerryon Johnson out of the backfield. Johnson secured the ball, appeared to take three steps with it, and then fumbled it out of bounds as a defender approached. The pass was ruled a catch and then a lost ball, granting the Lions a first down at the Green Bay 30.
Packers coach Matt LaFleur challenged the ruling, and it paid off. While the ESPN announcing crew suggested a catch had been made, the shifting of the ball in Johnson’s hands as he moved it to his outside arm made the play anything but cut and dry. The replay official saw enough movement to rule the play an incomplete pass, and Detroit settled for a field goal that made the score 22-13. That was a possibly unlucky call for the Lions, but an understandable one.
2. The first drive-sustaining hands to the face penalty
The refs’ next gaffe against Detroit was much less forgivable. Rodgers crumpled to the ground on a third-and-10 sack for a loss of 11 yards that almost certainly would have set up a punt. In the process, the umpire threw his flag into the mix. He called illegal hands to the face on Trey Flowers — giving Green Bay five yards and an automatic first down.
A quick review of the play would show Flowers had a firm grasp on left tackle David Bakhtiari’s shoulder pads and, with the exception of possibly a small slip upward toward the end of the play that had no bearing on the actual outcome itself, stayed there.
here's the first non-existent hands to the face that turned 4th-and-20ish into a first down (and, later, a Packer touchdown) pic.twitter.com/nHnIEFI76B— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 15, 2019
Three plays later, Rodgers hit Allen Lazard for a 35-yard touchdown pass that made this a one-possession game.
3. The blanked deep-ball pass interference
Still, the Lions led after that touchdown and could salt away the game with a sustained drive. And it looked like they might, until some dicey coverage on second down knocked away a Stafford deep ball that should have put Detroit in field goal range.
Safety Will Redmond got beat off the line of scrimmage by Marvin Jones, but recovered in time to get back to his assignment and make a play on the ball. Except he recovered too quickly, making contact with Jones and impeding his progress toward the pass before it could get to the eager receiver.
No pass interference flag was thrown on the play. Lions head coach Matt Patricia didn’t challenge the no-call, probably because he knew pass interference challenge flags had resulted in just one reversal in 21 reviews between Week 3 and Monday night’s game. Instead, he chose not to risk a timeout, took his chances on third-and-6, and then punted the ball back to Rodgers when that failed to pan out.
4. The game-deciding, second phantom hands to the face call
Rodgers drove Green Bay back to Detroit territory when he faced third-and-4 from the Detroit 16 with 1:45 remaining in the game. After facing some pressure in the pocket, he uncorked an incomplete pass to the corner of the end zone ... only to be bailed out by the same official on the same phantom hands to the face call.
oh my god the refs bailed out Green Bay with a nonexistent hands-to-the-face penalty on third-and-long FOR THE SECOND TIME THIS QUARTER— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 15, 2019
(both on Trey Flowers, good lord) pic.twitter.com/Hg3k0OxS3L
Coincidentally enough, Billy Turner — No. 77 on the right side of that clip — is doing the exact same damn thing to defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson by grabbing a hold of his collar. He wasn’t called for hands to the face or holding in the aftermath.
“They saw something different than what actually happened,” a frustrated Flowers, who’d never been called for hands to the face in his five-year pro career before Week 6, explained to the media at his locker after the game. “They called what they thought they saw. So ... yeah.
“I didn’t think hands to the chest was a penalty.”
NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent agreed that the second flag wasn’t a penalty. Bahktiari wasn’t as certain, suggesting that Flowers had gotten away with hands to the face penalties throughout the game.
Some Packers context on the Trey Flowers penalties from David Bakhtiari, which ran on NFL Live today. pic.twitter.com/htyZz72RIy— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) October 15, 2019
Instead of settling for a 34-yard field goal to take the lead and hand the ball back to Stafford with roughly 90 seconds left, the Packers were able to milk the clock before Mason Crosby kicked a game-winning 23-yard attempt as time expired. The Lions had no opportunity to mount a comeback in a game where Stafford had averaged 14.7 yards per completion, and the blame for that falls directly on the officiating crew’s shoulders.
So where do we go from here?
The Lions have the same case the Saints had after losing to the Rams in last year’s NFC Championship Game, albeit with much smaller stakes. Bad calls directly impacted their ability to win, which is not an especially foreign feeling on Monday Night Football or against the Packers. See: the batted ball game, and the nonexistent facemask that gave Green Bay an untimed down and led to Rodgers’ legend-building Hail Mary in 2015.
After getting the benefit of the doubt on an unclear Kerryon Johnson goal-line dive in the first quarter, Detroits fortunes shifted considerably. While Rodgers may have been able to work his magic and beat Detroit without any help from the men in stripes, there’s no denying his job got a lot easier thanks to a pair of free first downs — the same amount of first downs taken away from the Lions in 50/50-ish calls that same quarter.
If referee Clete Blakeman was questioning his crew’s decisions after the game, he sure wasn’t telling the press about it.
Pool report on the hands to the face penalties by Trey Flowers pic.twitter.com/qKGLdEshlU— kyle meinke (@kmeinke) October 15, 2019
But changing the rules for one high-profile example of incompetent officiating seems like an overreaction, especially given the impressive waste of time 2019’s reformed pass interference policies have been. Time-burning challenges don’t seem like a viable path forward for the league, either. Maybe a dedicated replay crew — a group of officials headquartered in New York City who review every flag thrown in real time and buzz down to appropriate referees to signal when a flag should be picked up and dismissed — could add an extra layer of protection in situations like these.
The good news is the league’s fall meeting starts Tuesday, and the Lions’ latest loss will be fresh on the minds of owners and executives. The bad news is any meaningful reform will take a lot of work and have to go through several bureaucratic layers of discussion and voting to have a shot at becoming protocol.
So all we really learned Monday night is that we’ve got a long, long way to go before NFL teams can feel like their best efforts in a season where every play counts won’t go to waste because an umpire can’t tell the difference between someone’s shoulder pads and their facemask.
And that the football gods still hate the Lions.