The Picked-Up Flag That Dragged Me Deeper Into The Abyss
9:21 AM EST on January 7, 2022
Welcome to Infinite Replay, a recurring feature about the plays we can’t stop seeing over and over and over again.
I don't really trust my childhood memories, but I'm pretty sure this was a joke my family's church's priest told at the end of mass one Sunday, sometime during the Detroit Lions' Matt Millen Era. It went something like this.
A man walks into a barbershop with his dog on a Sunday afternoon, and the Lions game is on TV in the corner. While the man's getting a haircut, the Lions kick a field goal, and when the dog sees this, he gets a huge burst of energy. He starts running around the shop, making a bunch of noise, and he even high fives another customer with his paw.
"That's amazing," the barber says. "What does he do if they score a touchdown?"
"I don't know," the man replies. "He's only a year old."
Even during the small handful of seasons where the Lions creeped above .500, I have never known a time in my life where ragging on this franchise was not a beloved pastime across all walks of life in the state of Michigan. Your extended family on Thanksgiving, your server at a restaurant on Sunday, and even your local priest could all connect with you via three simple words: "The Lions suck"—or, in slightly better and wordier times, "The Lions will blow it."
Signs of the Lions' hopelessness permeates a life spent growing up in the area. St. John’s Episcopal Church in downtown Detroit's "Pray Here For The Tigers And Lions" sign took on a comical extra layer of desperation during most seasons. The "Fire Millen" chants, in the middle of the 2000s, sparked so much passion that they could be heard at sporting events around the state. And the absurd tales of the tragic figures associated with the team—perhaps most memorably assistant coach Joe Cullen's naked trip through a Dearborn Wendy's drive-thru—became the stuff of regularly referenced legend.
But on three occasions in my conscious sports fan's life, there has been a glimmer of hope. In the 2011, 2014, and 2016 seasons, the Lions found a way into the NFL playoffs as a Wild Card team, and though on each occasion they failed to double their tally of postseason victories in the Super Bowl era (their only win came in the 1991 season), these games by default stand out as the most memorable from decades of losing. In 2011, in the Superdome, the Lions gave a valiant effort but found themselves simply overwhelmed by the New Orleans Saints' superior offense. In 2016, against the Seahawks, the game started ugly on both sides but ended ugly on just one, and the Lions lost their ninth straight in the playoffs, 26-6.
But 2014 not only marked the team's first and to-date only season with 11 or more wins since that fabled 1991 campaign, it was also measurably different in terms of how close they came to further success. The play that haunts my brain, from the Lions' Wild Card game against the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 4, 2015, happened as the dream of a postseason victory was just starting to feel slightly more tangible to all who were watching in Detroit. On the back of a couple of first-quarter touchdowns and a couple of later field goals, the Lions were clinging to a 20-17 lead as they held the ball just past midfield with 8:25 remaining in the game.
After two rushing plays for a total of nine yards, the offense faced third-and-1, and instead of handing the ball off again, head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi put the drive in the hands of their franchise QB, Matthew Stafford. Stafford faked the handoff, enjoyed a moment in the pocket, and then threw it to tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who appeared to have gained a step on linebacker Anthony Hitchens's coverage as he ran down the field.
The pass was not a good one. It was low and behind Pettigrew's path and forced its target to turn around and reverse his momentum to get to the ball. It bounced off Hitchens's back shoulder and fell incomplete. But to a typical fan watching in real time, this looked like a textbook case of pass interference, and those hopes/concerns were validated as a flag dropped down to the field from the back judge. Head referee Pete Morelli announced the penalty as PI, as expected, and it seemed as though Detroit would be awarded a new set of downs.
But before the Lions could snap the ball on their next play, the flag was erased from existence. The box score, years later, only says "M. Stafford pass incomplete deep left to B. Pettigrew," because the initial call on the field was reversed. Despite apparent contact on Pettigrew's shoulder from Hitchens that helps prevent Pettigrew from making the catch—and an initial flag that was supported by then-VP of officiating Dean Blandino—the final ruling from the referees on the field claimed that this was a case of legal face guarding.
"The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference," Morelli said after the game. "We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference. He thought it was face guarding.
"The information came, and then the officials got together a little bit later after it was given to me, the first information. It probably would've been smoother if we got together."
On the ensuing fourth down, Sam Martin would punt the ball a mere 10 yards, and the Cowboys would go on to drive it 59 yards in five-and-a-half minutes, converting on a fourth-and-6 in the process, to take their first lead of the game, 24-20. In the Lions' final chance to pull out a win, Stafford fumbled at the Cowboy star on a fourth down with a minute remaining. Dallas would go on to the next round of the playoffs, where an even more controversial passing play contributed to their loss to the Packers. The Cowboys, however, ended up with another playoff win in 2018, and they'll be back again as the NFC East champs this season. Detroit, on the other hand, is 2-13-1 and still has miles to go before they can even consider the possibility of breaking that postseason victory drought.
Like potato chips, Lions heartbreak comes in every conceivable flavor, and the sheer number of them I've consumed in my life is probably pretty unhealthy. In 2002, short-lived head coach Marty Mornhinweg took the wind instead of the ball in an overtime loss to the Bears. In 2004, a botched extra point after a would-be game-tying TD drive led to a 28-27 loss. In 2008, Dan Orlovsky ran out of the back of the end zone for a safety in a game the Lions lost 12-10. In 2010, they lost to the Bears after Calvin Johnson did not maintain control through the entire process of the catch. In 2015, the Lions lost on Monday night to the Seahawks because of a missed illegal batting call. Later that year, Aaron Rodgers completed a 20-point comeback in Motown on a miraculous Hail Mary after a phony face mask flag. And in 2021, a missed delay of game helped allow Justin Tucker to steal one from the Lions with the longest field goal in NFL history.
So many of these losses feel like simple insult to injury, as a doomed franchise encounters just another moment of misfortune in a neverending wave of bad luck. But the Cowboys loss is uniquely painful and memorable, both because of how well the team played to get to that position and because none of the typical screwy Lions bullshit entered into play until the whistle that wasn't. Even today, while I simply hang my head in embarrassment at most of these memories, I still experience futile, passionate anger at this defeat. We had it, and then they took it away from us. And for that reason, it's the one that stings the most.
I really, genuinely believe that it will all be worth it one day. I've continued to devotedly cheer for the Lions years after moving to a new state, and even more years after it would have made perfect sense to abandon them for some other team. (My brother got obsessed with the Atlanta Falcons, which ... well, that's its own form of misery.) When the Lions beat the Cardinals 30-12 in Week 15, I didn't mourn the loss of the No. 1 overall draft pick like a smart, cynical fan should; I applauded the boys for playing their best game yet in a season of horrible breaks. I want the people in my state to have some nice Sundays in the fall, even when the stakes are as low as they can get. I want the players who choose to play here to, at least on occasion, feel good about that choice. And selfishly, I want to know a time where I can look back on games like the Dallas loss and see them not as devastating blows in a continuous cycle of misery, but as charmingly emotional roadblocks on the path to the greatest and most important Super Bowl win the world will ever see. Every loss only makes me more determined to see this through.