SEATTLE — “It is an illegal bat if any player bats or punches a loose ball (that has touched the ground) in any direction, if it is in either end zone.” — Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1b, Official Playing Rules of the National Football League
Call it the Second Calvin Johnson Rule.
When Johnson caught a ball from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford with 1:51 left in Detroit's Monday night game against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, the star receiver thought he may have put the game away for his winless team. The 0-3 Lions had been listless on offense all night, but had driven down from their own nine-yard line in about five minutes, and appeared to be just inches away from overcoming a 13-10 deficit.
And then, just before Johnson crossed the goal line, Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor chopped the ball out of his hand, and the ball bounced out of the end zone for a touchback for the Seahawks. A few plays later, Seattle put the game away to eke out the 13-10 win and move its record to 2-2.
Only one problem with this narrative: Rule 12.4.1(b). That's the NFL's rule against an illegal bat by a defender, which Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright appeared to violate in the end zone before the ball went out of bounds. It's a penalty that should have been called against the Seahawks, with the Lions given the ball with first-and-goal at the Seattle one-yard line, but Tony Corrente's crew didn't get the call right. Or, as NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino said in a statement following the game, Corrente's crew—led by back judge Gregory Wilson, who had his eyes right on the play and was in perfect view the whole time—didn't believe Wright's intent was to violate the rule.
“You can’t bat the ball in any direction in the end zone, in either end zone. K.J. Wright batted the football,” Blandino said. “That’s a foul for illegal bat. The back judge was on the play and in his judgment he didn’t feel it was an overt act so he didn’t throw the flag. In looking at the replays, it looked like a bat so the enforcement would be basically we would go back to the spot of the fumble and Detroit would keep the football. It’s not reviewable in replay. That’s specific in the replay rule.”
Which was odd, because Wright admitted after the game that he was as overt about the act as he possibly could be.
“I just wanted to knock it out of bounds, and not try to catch it and fumble it,” he said. “I was just trying to make a good play for my team... you can't hit it backwards, and you can't intentionally knock it out. But at the time, I wasn't thinking that. I was just trying to not mess up the game. So, I know now.”
Well, we all know now. Small consolation for the Lions, who moved to 0-4 and had only themselves to blame before the strange call. Many of the same issues that had plagued Detroit throughout this season showed up again here—spotty production, questionable play-calling, and an inability to sustain drives at a repeatable rate. Stafford completed 24 of 35 passes for just 203 yards, and overthrew Johnson on several vertical boundary routes. The Lions amassed just 53 rushing yards on 18 carries, which won't help their league-worst ground game. Johnson led the team with seven receptions for 56 yards, which is not the kind of numbers one would expect from a player of his magnitude. The defense played well against a Seattle offense that was playing without the injured Marshawn Lynch, and is sporting perhaps the worst offensive line in the NFL, but in the end, none of that mattered.
This one hurt in a unique way.
“Calvin ran a fantastic route, a one-on-one route, and got open,” Stafford said of the last play. “I threw him the ball. He was doing what he always does and trying to make a play to help our team win the game, and Kam Chancellor made a heck of a play, and the ball bounced out of the back of the end zone.”
Well, sure. That's the version without the controversy at the end.
“I have heard about that,” Stafford said of Rule 12.4.1b. “That doesn't make me feel much better now. I've been part of a couple of rule-issue things at the end of ballgames since I've been here. It's no different. It doesn't put a win in the win column for us.”
Nor was Lions head coach Jim Caldwell amused, but the more the Lions opened up about the play, the more they blamed the entire mess on their own inability to get things done. Pity the NFL doesn't award points for grace.
“I know the play at the end is a questionable play because it was a batted ball, but that goes upstairs [to the league], so there's nothing you can do about it,” Caldwell said. “Nevertheless, we've gotta get better... talk to Blandino and the rest of those guys, they will explain it.”
Blandino tried to explain it further on the NFL Network.
“The rule itself, a bat is an intentional act, so there is subjectivity to it. The official has to see it and then he has to rule whether it was intentional. It could be a muff, it could just hit the player and bounce out of bounds, so he has to make all of those decisions in that split second... he felt it wasn't an intentional, overt act, and that's why he didn't throw the flag.”
Lions safety James Ihedigbo is not interested in any apologies from the league -- he wants action.
“It’s not going to change it to a win,” he said. “I mean, it’s just unfortunate. They've got to be held accountable just as players are in terms of equipment violations, whatever it might be. There’s a standard that players are held to on the field. There’s a standard that coaches are held to on the field. There’s a standard that teams are held to on the field, and there has to be a standard that officials are held to as well. You can’t just apologize.”
On the Seahawks' side, there was a definite feeling that while the defense played well enough to bail the offense out, the home team got away with one here.
“The play Kam made was extraordinary,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “We've seen it before, [safety] Earl [Thomas] made one against the Rams last year, and this was the same kind of situation. These guys battle for the football, and it was a fantastic effort. The call was in the end zone, you guys heard about that one, it's a very unique situation. But it was a fantastic night of battling.”
As far as his own understanding of the rule, Carroll had this to say.
“In general, the ball had to be batted backwards, if you're doing it intentionally, and it doesn't matter where you're doing it on the field. It was a very unique situation, and K.J. was in complete control of the ball, and it happens to be going forward. It's a very rare situation, Had he been trying to recover it and knocking it out, there wouldn't have been any question. But they couldn't challenge if it was intentional or not. It's unfortunate that the officials didn't know how to do it for their sakes, and that's just the way it goes sometimes.”
So... did the coach feel that his team got a break?
“Now that you look at it, we're fortunate in that one. The game wasn't over. It didn't mean the game was over. We just might have had to keep playing.”
The still winless Lions would have certainly preferred that to the endless what-ifs this result will produce.