DETROIT – As far as Detroit Lions’ coaching blunders go, Jim Schwartz’s illegal challenge ranks right up there with Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind instead of the football in overtime 10 years ago in Chicago.
Morningweg never lived it down and got fired after his team lost its final eight games that season.
It will be interesting to see what the long-term effects will be on Schwartz following the Lions’ heartbreaking 34-31 loss Thursday in overtime to the Houston Texans.
The Lions fought to overcome their coach’s mistake, but they ended up with their ninth straight Thanksgiving Day defeat.
The home-town fans kept booing the officials throughout the game, but they should have saved a few for the head coach.
Schwartz admitted as much, pointing to himself and telling his players and coaches, “It’s on me,” right after a bizarre sequence gave the Texans a touchdown.
Officially, it went down as an 81-yard TD run by Justin Forsett, cutting the Lions’ lead to 24-21 with 6:35 left in the third quarter.
In reality, it should have been a short gain because replays clearly showed that Forsett’s left arm and left knee hit the turf before he popped up and ran the rest of the way, about 75 yards, untouched into the end zone.
The fiery Schwartz, in his fourth season as a head coach, quickly threw down his red flag to challenge the play. The problem is that because it was a scoring play, by league rules, it’s automatically reviewed by the replay booth.
Coaches are not allowed to challenge scoring plays. If they do, it’s considered an illegal challenge, which not only resulted in a 15-yard penalty against Detroit, but — more importantly — automatically negated the opportunity to review the play and overturn the touchdown.
In the end, it was a bad call, a bad challenge and a bad rule.
Three strikes and you’re out.
Schwartz said he knew the rule, but overreacted in the moment.
“I was so mad that they didn’t call him down,” Schwartz said. “He was obviously down. I had the flag out of my pocket before he even scored the touchdown. That’s all my fault. I cost us a touchdown.
“No excuse. You don’t challenge turnovers and you don’t challenge scoring plays.” Schwartz said he didn’t blame his defensive players for quitting on the play because it was obvious to them that the runner was down and they potentially could have gotten a penalty for a late hit.
Asked if he thinks the illegal challenge is a dumb rule, Schwartz responded, “That’s what the rule is so …”
He paused before adding, “The idea with replay is to get the call on the field right and obviously that didn’t happen.”
It was the second failed challenge of the day for Schwartz. The first one was denied after it appeared a Houston player might have touched the ball on a punt, which was then recovered by Detroit.
After the review, the play stood, according to the referee, because there was not indisputable evidence to overturn it.
Schwartz admitted that play was still on his mind when he threw the flag on the so-called touchdown run.
“I was still smarting over the first challenge that wasn’t overturned,” he said. “I thought it was pretty obvious that the ball hit their guy (on the punt).
“We seemed to be behind a lot of those calls today.”
When the referee ruled that Forsett’s touchdown wouldn’t be reviewed, nobody was angrier than Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who drop-kicked the game-plan folder he was holding.
Schwartz then sent out word along the sideline, taking full responsibility for his brain cramp. He was hoping to minimize the damage and keep the team from getting too distracted by the misfortune.
It might have helped, but not soon enough.
Receiver Calvin Johnson said the momentum swing was obvious as a 10-point lead became a tie game within four minutes.
“You could feel it out there,” Johnson said. “Blown call. I’m not saying nothing against the referees. I ain’t trying to get fined or anything. But, man, you’ve got to do better.”
The Lions eventually overcame the frustration, showed tremendous resiliency and even put themselves in position to win the game several times.
But they couldn’t make the big play to get over the hump, falling to 4-7 with five games remaining in a disappointing season.
In overtime alone, tight end Brandon Pettigrew fumbled inside the Houston 35-yard line, receiver Ryan Broyles dropped a pass inside the 30, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch dropped an interception that could have been the winning touchdown and reliable Jason Hanson missed a 47-yard field goal.
“Guys fought their ass off,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “It’s a tough one to swallow. Just a crazy game.”
The coach is going to replay this one in his mind over and over. There’s a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL. You can’t give teams like the 10-1 Texans a touchdown and the momentum without the risk of losing it in the end.
“We had a lot of other things in this game that we could have overcome that (his illegal challenge),” Schwartz said. “The team could have bailed me out.”
But as hard as they might have tried, they didn’t bail him out.
The ramifications, ultimately, could be significant.