Why Bad Calls Matter

You probably forgot about it already, didn’t you. That’s okay, most of us have. That’s the natural cycle of the NFL season. We watch one week’s games, then we react with praise and excitement or criticism and outrage — mostly criticism and outrage — until the next week’s games begin and give us new stuff to talk about. So that blown call at the end of Monday night’s game, when K.J. Wright swatted the ball out of the back of the end zone after Kam Chancellor forced the Calvin Johnson fumble at the 1-yard line, is probably far from your mind. After all, what’s done is done, right?

Tell that to the Detroit Lions.

Let me tell you what happens in an NFL locker room when a team is losing and there’s virtually no chance they’ll make the playoffs.

Guys tend to get a little selfish.

I don’t care who you are — everybody plays this game to win. You play to make it to the playoffs and to win a championship, so the team always comes first. But the NFL is also a business, and playing football is a job—it’s how these guys make their living. So when the team goal of winning a championship is no longer attainable, self-preservation instincts kick in. Guys start to think about their starting position, or their roster spot, or their contract. It’s not because they don’t respect their teammates or they’re not committed to their organization — it’s just human nature.

Right now, the Lions coaching staff is trying to motivate the team by saying they caught a bad break against the Seahawks, but they still have an opportunity to shock the world and become only the second team to ever make the playoffs after starting the season 0-4. Even that small percentage — that little bit of hope that they can still make the playoffs — is enough to keep guys going. That’s how badly guys want to win.

But when those playoff chances slip away, not everybody’s going to keep buying into that team-first mentality. Guys start thinking about how they look as an individual on film, because when the offseason comes, whether or not your team bounced back from an 0-4 start to finish 8-8 won’t determine whether or not you have a job next season. Your game film will.

At this point, you must be wondering, What does this have to do with the ref missing that call on Monday night?

Well, look at it like this: If you include preseason and the playoffs, the NFL season spans just over six months. That sounds like a long season. But at the end of the day, there are only 16 regular season games. Not 82 like in basketball, not 162 like in baseball (could you imagine?). In terms of games, the season is short, which means each win and each loss is weighted more than in other sports. And it also means that every mistake — especially a bad call at a pivotal moment in a game — is magnified.

When K.J. made  that play on Monday night, the ref should have called a penalty. He didn’t. Don’t blame the ref; it’s an obscure rule, and they make mistakes like all of us do. The instant impact is easy to pinpoint: Seahawks win, Lions lose. But there’s much more to it. You may have already moved on to Week 5 — and mentally, the Lions have, too — but they’ll still feel the effects long after the rest of us have forgotten about it.

That loss dropped the Lions to 0-4 instead of improving them to 1-3. Now, 1-3 doesn’t sound much better than 0-4, but the reality is that at 1-3, the Lions would only be one game behind a cluster of 2-2 teams in the NFC, so it’s only one game back of a potential playoff spot.

So if the ref had made the correct call on the field, the Lions would have had a chance to win that game. And if they had, not only would they be 1-3 right now, but there would be a completely different mindset in that locker room. Instead of a feeling that their season is slipping away so early and that everything seems to be working against them, they’d have a sense of optimism. They’d be coming off a comeback road win against a two-time Super Bowl team in the toughest road stadium in sports. Luck would be on their side, and it would be the most upbeat 1-3 locker room in the NFL.

Instead, they’re 0-4, and it probably feels like they just can’t catch a break.

The Seahawks are obviously on the opposite end of that call. It worked in their favor, so they’ll go on with their season with new life at 2-2, one game behind the Cardinals, who lead their division. That call was the difference between being right on the Cardinals’ heels with two games left against them or being 1-3 and everyone in the world talking about what’s wrong with the Seahawks. That call was a huge turning point for them. So after an 0-2 start, they’re back at 2-2 and they feel like they have luck on their side.

But the Lions are in a position where they not only have to have a miraculous turnaround themselves to make the playoffs, but they have to count on more than a couple of other teams to fall off to even give them a chance. They’re only four games into the season, and they already don’t control their own fate.

All because of a ball that got illegally batted out of the end zone, and a missed call.