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I’m Not Blaming the Refs

2012 January 9

I love what Detroit Lions’ head coach Jim Schwartz has accomplished since taking over the team three years ago. Making steady progress almost from the start, he’s quickly transformed the team from longtime joke and near-term catastrophe to one of the most relevant and intriguing teams in the NFL. As a lifelong fan of the Lions, I could hardly ask for more, and I consider this season a great success. There’s no shame ending the season by losing to the Saints, whom many believe will win the Super Bowl next month. The Saints beat the Lions because they’re the better team.

Still, it might have been different.

Schwartz said immediately following the game that he takes no comfort in his team playing well and having a lead against perhaps the best team in the NFL for more than a half. When asked if he cared to elaborate on early season comments about never settling for anything less than winning — if he’d be willing, in other words, to put the Lions’ season in perspective — he said, “No,” and walked away.

Schwartz will meet the media again tomorrow afternoon in his last formal press conference of the 2011-2012 season and he may well be willing to elaborate and even say a nice thing or two after he’s had a good (or horrible) night’s sleep. But if he’s not willing to accept anything less than excellence from his team he also must apply that standard to himself. And Schwartz made a crucial mistake in what may well have been the game’s utltimate turning point.

I’m not privy to the behind-the-scenes stories so I’d never criticize the way Schwartz prepared his team, and I don’t know enough about football in general to even comment on his game plan — though I’d venture that on both fronts he was solid if not stellar. His team came ready to play, it was competitive until the game got out of hand late due to desperation, and it was beaten by a few of its own mistakes and a handful of big plays made by the better team.

While Schwartz’s pre-game performance may be difficult to judge, it’s not hard to admire. His in-game performance, on the other hand, is both easier to assess and much easier to criticize. Midway through the third quarter, the Saints were ahead 17-14 after scoring a quick and unanswered touchdown on their first drive of the second half. A stalled Lions drive later and they were on the move again but still on their own side of mid-field when a Lion defender seemed to stand a Saint up well short of the first down marker on a third down play. But the refs allowed a generous spot and quickly signalled a first down.

I’m not blaming the referees for making a bad call — though I believe the replays clearly showed the spot was erroneous. Refs make bad calls (among the vast majority of often amazingly accurate calls). But the rules allow each coach to challenge two calls per game — so I blame Schwartz for not challenging this one.

This is even easier to assess in hindsight, though I was yelling out loud at the time for Schwartz to throw his own flag before the Saints snapped the ball again. He didn’t — and a handful of plays later the Saints had scored another touchdown to make it 24-14, which put the Lions in a hole from which they never recovered.

Some might say this type of call is most difficult to overrule, and that with still more than 20 minutes left in the game Schwartz was right to keep his two challenges in his pocket to use when the game’s on the line. But by game’s end, Schwartz still owned a challenge per pocket. Others will say it might not have got overturned — but we’ll never know because he didn’t try. When callers on talk radio in the last day have complained about the refs, local hosts have been quick to scold: the refs didn’t lose this game for the Lions. And of course they’re right. But Schwartz had an arsenal of weapons he never used in the biggest game of the season. So it’s impossible to say he went all out.

Schwartz’s team should be proud of the job they’ve done — and aware of the mistakes they’ve made. And so should Schwartz. He’s often almost comically tough and curt with the media, though he’s also relatively young for a man in his position, with eclectic tastes in music and pop culture and a wry sense of humor he occasionally allows to seep charmingly through. He says he keeps his criticisms of players between him and the team private — and perhaps he keeps his own counsel about self-criticisms as well. So it’ll be interesting to see if the media questions Schwartz about this decision, and if they do, how he responds.

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