When push comes to shove, Detroit Lions just fine getting shoved

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

Whether Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell knew, at the time, that it was illegal for Seattle's K.J. Wright to bat a fumbled football out of the back of the end zone remains somewhat of a mystery. That's probably how Caldwell wants it.

In a 24 hours that can, at best, be described as "resigned," the Lions and their head coach have done little to nothing to voice public displeasure at the referee's blowing a game-changing call in a 13-10 loss to Seattle on Monday.

The NFL has acknowledged Wilson should have been flagged for knocking a Calvin Johnson fumble out of the end zone, setting Detroit up inside the 1-yard line with time to win the game.

Jim Caldwell reacts as officials ruled a touchback on a fumble by Calvin Johnson. (AP)
Jim Caldwell reacts as officials ruled a touchback on a fumble by Calvin Johnson. (AP)

You'd think that a referee error that almost assuredly changed the outcome of a contest for an already desperate and depressed team would spark something out of this long downtrodden organization and its low-key coach.

Forget it. Caldwell met with the media back in Michigan on Tuesday and did all he could to sweep through the issue as fast as possible. He essentially wants to ignore the gut-punch defeat. He further promised that neither he nor any player would ever discuss it again, like it was they who did something wrong. Usually it's the NFL that offers the "no further comment" line.

Sometimes it becomes clear how a franchise can manage to win just a single playoff game in 57 years.

At some point this isn't about what calls are right or wrong but about standing up and declaring you won't keep being on the wrong side of this (just as they were last January when a controversial call/non-call bounced them from the playoffs). Or for a coach, at least showing his players that he'll fight to the end for them the way they fought to the end for him.

And if the coach can't do it, maybe the general manager or owner or someone – anyone – should, if only to show the paying customers that anyone even cares.

Did Caldwell even know the batting rule or what happened at the time? He declared, "Sure," after the game, but there is no proof that it is true.

Replays show backup running back Theo Reddick trying to argue with refs but don't show anyone on the Lions sideline doing the same. Caldwell said he saw the ball get batted out of bounds but that once the refs huddled, applying verbal pressure on them was pointless.

"They all started to confer," Caldwell explained. "So I knew it was a discussion going on there just in terms of the rule and how it works. Once they figured they had it ironed out, obviously, it's out of our control. It had to be reviewed and looked at by them from upstairs, and once it was completed, then we had to look at ways to try and make certain we got the ball back."

This is ludicrous, of course.

Referees are people and people respond to pressure. Coaches have been intimidating them – or at least arguing their cases – since the games began. Sometimes it even works. While that behavior can often be boorish and no team needs a coach who loses his focus, there are also quite reasonable times to offer aggressive argument.

Like when the entire game is in the balance.

You can't just hope they get it right, especially in that environment.

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In the 2012 book "Scorecasting," University of Chicago behavioral economist Tobias Moskowitz and Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim determine the biggest basis for "home field advantage" in sports is officials who are intimated by home crowds. Even if the refs didn't realize it, the book shows that it is natural to go along with the cheers. It's one explanation why road teams statistically receive more penalties.

That's particularly why the Lions, playing in a raucous and (at that point) celebratory Seattle stadium, needed an advocate reminding officials of the rules and how any decision not in line with it would not be tolerated. If there was ever a time to be proactive, this was it.

These are the Lions though, ever patiently-accepting of their fate under the Ford Family ownership. Since 1967 they've employed just four general managers – two of whom were promoted from within. Even Matt Millen was given seven years.

All that had resulted in an average of just six wins a season, including this season's 0-4 start.

But the coach kept saying Tuesday that he wasn't going to lash out, he wasn't going to discuss the play, he wasn't going to say much about anything because he didn't want the players distracted for their preparation for Arizona.

"You can take that situation and drag it out through the week where your players are more focused on that particular play than the opposition we have to play in a just a few days," Caldwell said. "You can act woe is me and 'bad call' and 'that went against us' and all those kinds of things. And that will distract you and you get your ears kicked in Sunday afternoon."

Fair points, but they also aren't the only two possible scenarios. Whether this is the intention or not, silence (from the coach and the players) also conveniently eliminates the chance that fans find out what was being said – namely, who even knew the rules – on the Lions' sidelines in those critical moments.

Sometimes standing up and demanding that this isn't a team the refs can roll over – that getting hosed won't be tolerated ‐ can be a rallying cry to try to salvage what's left of a season.

Sometimes the coach needs to be more than just the coach, and the Lions need to be a little more than just the Lions.

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