Were the Detroit Lions Screwed by the NFL Rulebook?

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 26, 2017

Referee Walt Coleman reviews a play during the second half of an NFL football game between the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The statute which might have cost the Detroit Lions a victory and saved the Atlanta Falcons from a loss Sunday resides on page 16 of a convoluted 85-page rulebook

"If a replay review after the two-minute warning of either half results in the on-field ruling being reversed and the correct ruling would not have stopped the game clock, then the officials will run 10 seconds off the game clock before permitting the ball to be put in play on the ready-for-play signal," Rule 4, Section 7, Article 4 dictates. "The defense cannot decline the runoff, but either team can use a remaining timeout to prevent it."

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Trailing the Falcons 30-26 with 12 seconds remaining in regulation, the Lions thought they had pulled off yet another exhilarating fourth-quarter comeback when quarterback Matthew Stafford completed a one-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate. The play itself took four seconds, leaving eight on the clock. And Detroit had used all of its timeouts. 

However, an automatic replay review determined Tate was down short of the goal line.

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Had the Lions possessed a timeout, they could have used it to stop the clock at eight seconds. Had there been 11 or more seconds remaining, they could have immediately snapped the ball when the clock was wound to run one final play from inside the one-yard line. But because they didn't have a timeout and because there were fewer than 11 seconds remaining, the 10-second runoff ended the game. 

Runoffs exist for a reason. It wouldn't be fair to reward one team and punish its opponent for an official review. For all intents and purposes, a review inside two minutes could work as an extra timeout for the trailing team, which is why the 10-second runoff also applies when a team that is trailing or tied takes a penalty or experiences an injury with no timeouts remaining inside the two-minute warning.  

The issue here might be the length of the runoff. It's always been 10 seconds, presumably based on the notion that it typically takes at least that much time to get another snap off. But NFL offenses—and the cardiac Lions in particular—have become skilled at running an extreme hurry-up in frantic moments like the one in question. 

Just a week ago, the New England Patriots successfully transitioned from their regular offense to their field-goal unit and executed a snap in 15 seconds at the conclusion of the first half during their 36-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

Had Tate been ruled down live with no review, the Lions essentially would have been working from the same line of scrimmage with the same personnel. They may have been able to get set and snap the ball within eight seconds to run a fourth-down play. 

On Twitter, the team pointed out it did exactly that while hurrying up against the Minnesota Vikings last season. And under much more difficult circumstances, too.

Indeed, when receiver Andre Roberts was tackled at the Minnesota 40-yard line after a 27-yard completion, the clock read 10 seconds. 

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Eight seconds later, Stafford had already taken another snap and spiked the ball to set up the game-tying field goal. 

The Lions knew the runoff rule existed. They left themselves with no timeouts and a four-point deficit in the waning seconds, and Stafford decided to throw a pass in the middle of the field to a receiver short of the goal line. They made or failed to make plays and decisions that put themselves at the mercy of a questionable rule, and for that, they bear some of the blame. 

Still, they likely should have been granted another snap, and that bloated rulebook should contain one more article. 

It's fair to end any game that encounters a situation like this in the last five seconds, but one could argue the runoff should only be six or eight seconds in those dire moments. 

Alternatively, when a stoppage occurs inside of 20 seconds and outside of, say, the five-second mark, it might be fairer to charge a timeout-less offense half of the time remaining on the clock. 

Similar breaks are afforded to teams when they're only penalized half the distance to the goal rather than the regular yardage length for fouls that occur deep in either territory. In this example, it would be a way to limit the punitive effects in cases where neither team deserves to be penalized and we're dealing with developments outside of both teams' control. 

When facing hypotheticals regarding how long it would take to get another snap off, it makes sense to give the offensive team the benefit of the doubt. After all, we've seen offenses get snaps off in fewer than 10 seconds.

Why should the rulebook tell the Lions they couldn't accomplish something they've already done in the past? The rulebook has to make an assumption either way, but it is better off assuming the offense would have made it happen, leaving both teams to settle things on the field. 

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.