The bad blood between Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz has so overshadowed Sunday’s 49ers-Lions game that we’ve barely even discussed what the players on the field for these two 5-1 teams did on Sunday.
Unfortunately, we’ve now got another controversy coming out of this game that has nothing to do with the players: At the start of the 49ers’ game-winning drive, they were given five free yards when the officials spotted the ball in the wrong place.
It all started with the Lions leading 19-14 and punting from their own 36-yard line with five and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter. San Francisco’s Ted Ginn fielded the punt at his own 25 and got off a good return, crossing midfield before getting pushed out of bounds at the Lions’ 40-yard line.
And then, when they came back from the commercial break, the officials spotted the ball at the Lions’ 35-yard line, putting the 49ers five yards closer to the goal line. There wasn’t a five-yard penalty, it was simply that the officials put the ball on the wrong yard line following the break in the action. The Lions didn’t notice, the TV announcers didn’t notice, and if any members of the media noticed, it got drowned out in the Harbaugh-Schwartz hubbub. Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com appears to have been the first reporter to mention the issue; he was alerted to it by a fan on Twitter.
It took the 49ers eight plays to go 35 yards, and they eventually scored on a fourth-down pass from Alex Smith to Delanie Walker. Obviously, it’s entirely possible that they would have scored if they had needed to go 40 yards, too. But the Lions would have preferred not to give the 49ers a free five yards on a crucial drive.
The 49ers were called for 15 penalties on Sunday, and they were the ones doing most of the complaining about the officiating after the game, with receiver Michael Crabtree saying referee Mike Carey had an “attitude,” and cornerback Chris Culliver saying the officials were “Detroit fans.” But on balance the bad calls seem to have hurt the Lions more: There was also a questionable ruling that Matthew Stafford’s forward progress had stopped in the end zone on a safety, and a bad horse-collar tackle call against the Lions helped to set up a 49ers field goal.
Maybe instead of yelling at Harbaugh to learn the rules, Schwartz should have been yelling at Carey to learn the rules.