Two wrongs rarely make a right. But a wrong, plus a “technically right,” always makes a stupid.
That’s the lesson learned from the Justin Forsett touchdown in Thursday’s 34-31 Texans victory over the Lions, an event so breathtakingly asinine that it crowded a Ndamukong Suh crotch kick out of the national discussion.
In the unlikely event that you have not seen the play: Forsett takes a handoff, runs for eight yards, and gets brought down by Lions defenders Erik Coleman and Louis Delmas. There is no whistle, so Forsett gets up from being flat on the ground and keeps running, with only big Lawrence Jackson giving futile chase for the Lions. This was not a case of a ball carrier’s knee grazing the ground, or dropping a palm to the turf to steady himself, or rolling over a tackler and springing to his feet. Forsett’s entire body was down. Any lower, and he would have been a meerkat.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz challenged the ruling, which was a violation of the new NFL rule that subjects all scoring plays to an official review. In fact, throwing the challenge flag on a scoring play is an automatic 15-yard penalty and a forfeit of the challenge! So the worst call in recent memory -- worse than anything the replacement referees did, in Seattle or anywhere else, stood. Or at least it weeble-wobbled upon a point of procedure.
Can you imagine the joyless, persnickety, obsessive individual who conceived the “forfeiture of review” clause in the new replay rules? This person had too many tags ripped off his mattresses as a child. He reads software terms and conditions just for fun. Such a rule exists solely to create an upending of justice in the name of bureaucracy, exactly like the one we saw on Thursday. Think about it: The most likely time for a coach to lose his composure and illegally throw his challenge flag is after a call so jaw-droppingly moronic that it thwarts the logic circuits. The “forfeiture of review” rule exists for people who believe that technical justice is the highest justice, who would rather have a stupid call affect the outcome of a game than see Roberts Rules of Order violated.
Such people, it must be said, are never in short supply in NFL headquarters. The entire rulebook is a labyrinth of blind alleys and little “gotchas” begging to be interpreted in bizarre and counter-intuitive ways by the literal-minded. For years the league has taken a perverse delight in upholding every hairsplitting interpretation of every jot and tittle at the expense of common sense. That’s why we have the Tuck Rule, as well as the Calvin Johnson Rule, which states that a receiver must complete a catch in the end zone.
Yes, the Lions have been down this road before, when Johnson’s obvious touchdown against the Bears in 2010 was ruled incomplete based on the misapplication of a rule designed to handle end-zone bobbles, not celebrations. The Lions are the Oscar Madison to the NFL’s Felix Unger, so it is only natural that they constantly fall victim to the OCD elements of the rulebook. In fact, Thursday’s game was a quintessential Lions game, because
1) It took place on Thanksgiving.
2) It featured a Ndamukong Suh crotch kick, which is now as lovable a moment of annual holiday sadism as Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown;
3) a 60-pass effort by Matthew Stafford;
4) an incredible performance by Calvin Johnson;
5) a key moment at which you would swear that Stafford and Johnson had never met before they saw each other across the huddle. In overtime, Stafford threw a back-shoulder pass to Johnson, who ran a skinny post instead. Stafford appeared to be making the correct decision. This happens two or three times per Lions game, and you wonder how many years these two have to spend together before they get that Montana-Rice vibe, but then again there are going to be two or three ugly passes when you throw 60 of them;
6) a touchdown called back on a ridiculous technicality;
7) a bit of coaching idiocy.
Schwartz, of course, is supposed to know the rules. But you know who else is supposed to know the rules? The people in charge of enforcing the rules. The rules of “down by contact” have 100 years of history behind them and can be fairly adjudicated by junior high students in pickup games. The rules about challenge flags were amended a few months ago and are not intuitive at all. The thought that a tiny infraction supersedes and countermands a huge one is mind-boggling. It’s the stuff of a Saturday afternoon serial melodrama: Grandpa losing the farm to Ol’ Boss Heartless because he initialed the wrong page of the deed.
Calls like the Forsett touchdown are not just the result of bad officiating but of overzealous legislating. They are a failure of accountability. Rulings should always boil down to what really happened on the field, not points of procedure. When officials shrug their shoulders and point to paragraph C, subsection IV, addendum 3 to justify either inaction or some loopy interpretation, it’s a cop out. When the NFL restricts and discourages any “big picture” thinking by the officials, when it stands behind the strange dogma of its overwritten rulebook, it’s a bigger cop out that tacitly condones the smaller one.
The Texans-Lions game left fans with a bad taste in their mouths on Thanksgiving. The Lions deserve better. So do the Texans, who could well have won the game without the Forsett touchdown but will now carry a “tainted” victory through the season in the minds of some fans. We all deserve better than the heartless, mindless application of rules when those rules fly in the face of fairness, logic and objective reality.
The officials could have “missed” Schwartz’s challenge flag on the ground the way they missed Forsett on the ground, reviewed the play, and made the right call. It would have been “wrong.” What they did instead was wrong-headed.