By Jason Keidel
The normal NFL preamble is rife with point spreads, fantasy calculations and team-color preparations.
Except this weekend, when football took a more poignant place in the national dialogue, with a social media squabble started by the White House, of all places. President Trump, a football fan and failed football owner — if your memory reaches back to the USFL — called out NFL players who knelt during our national anthem.
This spawned all manner of retorts, none of them lauding the president for his insight. Teams went as far as to skip the national anthem en masse, staying in the locker room until the coin toss. The NFL itself issued a statement, branding Trump’s twitter attack “divisive” among other things. Presidents love to latch onto football, which has usurped baseball as our most consumed sport. But it’s usually to seize upon the fervor and fandom, to melt into the Americana, not to question the integrity of the players, or to advise teams on how to discipline them.
But no matter Trump’s goals or the shared response from the league, Sunday football morphed into what it’s largely been for the past 30 years — the best darn sport this nation produces.
From last-minute wins in Philadelphia and New England, to upsets in Chicago and Buffalo, the NFL was in midseason form. The RedZone Channel was whizzing through games and scores, with its screen-in-screen aplomb. (How about a nod to Scott Hanson? He may not be viewed as a broadcaster, but the RedZone conductor has perhaps the toughest TV job in the league.)
And in the spirit of protest spawned on Saturday, only one team on Sunday has a real right to protest or petition the league in the name of justice — the Detroit Lions.
It’s not uncommon for referees to get a call wrong. That’s what instant replay is for, and why those silly red napkins are stuffed into the socks of every head coach. What is rare is for a team of zebras to blow two calls — and the game.
First, with eight seconds left, Lions QB Matthew Stafford zipped a ball to Golden Tate, who was crossing from Stafford’s left toward the goal line. Perfect pass. Caught in stride. Tate ducks a defender, reaches the ball past the goal line.
All was fine at Ford Field, until it wasn’t. The refs, as the league mandates, had to check the replay on all touchdowns. (Remember, the refs called it a TD on the field, so they had to be convinced by “incontrovertible” proof to the contrary.) After a few moments of aching suspense, the refs overturned the call, asserting that Tate’s knee touched the ground before the ball crossed the goal line.
A lousy call, but the Lions would surely run another play with just the length of a football between them and the goal line, and victory.
Nope. The refs, again citing NFL legalese, declared there must be a 10-second run-off after the last play, which, by definition, ends the game. That sent the Lions, their fans, the media and the masses into a dizzy digestion of recent events.
- not able to be denied or disputed:
After 20 times watching the replay, I cannot say with bedrock certainty that Tate’s knee touched the turf before the ball crossed the goal line. If the refs had ruled the runner down before the goal line, then stick with it. But you did not see incontrovertible proof that Tate was down before the touchdown.
But even if the refs got it all wrong — twice — how can they blow it again by running 10 seconds off the clock over a procedure that is not under the Lions’ control? Had the refs blown it the first time and said Tate didn’t score, then Detroit could have possibly run another play and nudged the ball into the end zone.
No matter how you view the original call, the refs goofed, and their gaffes cost the Lions a vital football game. The 10-second runoff presupposes that the play on the field dictates it, not league procedure or referee incompetence.
Teams always preach the gospel of economy, the prudence of protecting the ball, assuring us that teams lose games as much as they win them, through boneheaded penalties and costly turnovers. But how do you plan for refs stealing a game from you?
If you’ve followed American team sports over the years, you know that petitions are largely symbolic and cosmetic, a right teams occasionally exercise to no real end. Now the Lions (2-1) have to deal with the three-pronged reality fact that they lost a game that they really won, lost it at home and lost it to the Falcons (3-0). Atlanta, who was in the last Super Bowl, figure to play past December, so this game could have all kinds of playoff implications, including tiebreakers and home-field advantage. Should they play each other, imagine this game being the difference between it being played in Atlanta or Detroit.
We sports fans love to moan about bad calls, but rarely, if ever, do we have the kind of beef Detroit has today. And they’ll have to live with it, since they surely won’t get justice from league headquarters.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.