The officials weren’t the only ones who made a bad call that cost the Lions dearly on Sunday in Dallas.
Obviously, the bad call that went against the Lions on a third-and-1 incompletion was huge: Not only did the officials miss Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens blatantly grabbing the jersey of Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew, but they then picked up the penalty flag that was correctly thrown on Hitchens for making contact with Pettigrew before the ball arrived. Then the officials didn’t flag Dez Bryant for unsportsmanlike conduct even though he ran off the bench and onto the field to complain about the flag thrown on Hitchens.
Let’s stipulate that if any one of those three penalties — the defensive holding, the pass interference or the unsportsmanlike conduct — had been called, the Lions would have had a first down in field goal range and would have been in great shape to win the game.
But let’s also acknowledge this: Even after the blown calls, the Lions had every opportunity to win that game. After the incomplete pass to Pettigrew, the Lions still had a three-point lead, and the Lions still the ball in Cowboys territory with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter.
The next play was fourth-and-1, and after the Lions took a delay of game penalty while trying to draw the Cowboys offside, Lions head coach Jim Caldwell sent in punter Sam Martin. The punt was a 10-yard shank that gave the Cowboys great field position, and the Cowboys used their great field position to march down the field and score the winning touchdown.
So why did Caldwell punt instead of going for it?
“Thought about [going for] it, and obviously, when you look at the result of the punt, you look at it a little bit differently, but that’s the benefit of the result,” Caldwell said. “But we thought about it in that situation. But we were up; we weren’t behind. If we were behind, a little bit different, depending on what kind of time was left on the clock.”
That explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense. Yes, you were up, but who says you should punt when you’re up? Shouldn’t you try to keep the ball to protect your lead? And shouldn’t you trust your offense to gain one yard?
Caldwell’s refusal to go for it on fourth down is all the more surprising because he wasn’t shy about going for it on fourth downs during the regular season. The Lions went for it on fourth down 20 times during the regular season, the second-most of any team in the league, and picked up first downs 10 times, also second-most in the league.
Of course, Caldwell didn’t know Martin would shank the punt, but Caldwell absolutely did know that the Lions’ special teams have been a mess all season, and he should have been prepared for the possibility that punting would not turn out well. Just last week against the Packers, the Lions gave up a punt return for a touchdown. Punting isn’t always the safe choice.
And in this game punting wasn’t the right choice. One reason the Lions lost is that the officials screwed up. Another reason the Lions lost is that Caldwell didn’t trust his offense to gain one yard.