Schwartz open for questioning in Lions' loss

Posted Sept. 24, 2012 @ 3:50 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

We have wondered how the new overtime rules would affect strategy.

Now we have some answers. And way more questions.

When the Lions and Titans improbably went to OT — it happened in the midst of the most wild three real-time minutes of NFL action I can ever remember — it was a minor miracle in and of itself. The Titans appeared to have it in the bag, having scored five wild touchdowns of 60 or more yards (one each by punt return, kickoff return and fumble return, and two by catch) and leading by 14 points with 28 seconds left and by seven with 16 seconds to go.

But that’s why God made the NFL. And onside kicks.

The Lions were granted a reprieve when an Alterraun Verner INT was overturned by a roughing-the-passer call against Akeem Ayers. One play later, Shaun Hill (subbing terrifically for an injured Matthew Stafford) hit Calvin Johnson for a TD to cut the Titans’ lead to 41-34.

You knew what was coming next, but agelessly brilliant PK Jason Hanson (who was 4-for-4 on field goals to that point — more on that in a moment) hit a perfect onside attempt, Amari Spievey recovered for the Lions, and they were in business. Somehow. Barely.

On a day in which the NFL honored the late Steve Sabol, this game was classic theatre that NFL Films only would have elevated. Back and forth. Scores in just about every fashion. A last-second comeback.

The only thing we hadn’t had at that point was the improbable and the controversial. Check and check.

After an incomplete pass that drained the clock to six seconds, enough for one play, Hill dropped back from the Titans’ 46, felt the rush, ran up to midfield and launched a prayer into the air.

First, a quick history reminder: Everyone remembers Mike Thomas’ “Hail Mary” pass from David Garrard to win a game for the Jaguars over the Texans two seasons ago. This was a near-mirror image play Sunday in Tennessee, with Ayers playing the role of another second-year defender, Glover Quin, who batted the ball into Thomas’ arms two years ago in November.

Ayers this time continued his miserable final minute by trying to knock Hill’s pass down but instead redirecting it straight into the arms of Titus Young. We’re tied at 41. Insanity — and OT — in Nashville.

And sanity would be suspended for the rest of the afternoon.

The Titans drove 12 plays downfield, riding the clutch right arm of Jake Locker (career-high 378 yards passing) and getting breaks with a few Lions penalties granting first downs. But they stalled on third down and nine from the Detroit 15 and kicked a field goal. New OT rules — game still went on, Titans up 44-41. Had the Lions come back and won, we might have questioned some of the strategy and play-calling of the Titans’ coaches, appearing to play safe and settle for that field goal with three potential shots at the endzone, which would have won it.

Instead, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was the one who would come under fire for his OT call. The Lions hit on their first five plays and got themselves into the same situation the Titans faced — first-and-10 from the opponents’ 16-yard line.

They, too, went conservative — then kablooey. A simple run, a short incomplete pass and a third-down completion set up a fourth-and-1 (really, it was less than a full yard) situation for the Lions at the Titans’ 7. Hanson surely would trot on and kick his fifth field goal of the day, and we’d play on.

No. Schwartz called for the Lions to go for it. With a backup QB in Hill sneaking it. Or did he want to catch the Titans offsides? Either way, both the decision and the play call failed. C Dominic Raiola appeared to catch Hill off guard with the snap, and the middle of the Titans’ worn-out defense — led by underrated DT Jurrell Casey — gummed up for one play and ended the OT thriller in classic, improbable fashion.

“Holy buckets!” FOX announcer Mike Martz exclaimed at game’s end, and that’s probably better than anything I could have come up with had I watched that in person.

But back to Schwartz and the Lions. So, coach, what gives? What happened there at the end?

“Miscommunication,” he said. “We were trying to draw them offsides. We had no intention of going for it there.”

We’re left, then, to criticize Schwartz not for going for it but for being unnecessarily aggressive when a field goal seems like the logical play. But that’s Schwartz’s style. That’s who he is. He can’t be called for a bad snap and for Raiola not hearing what the plan was. But Schwartz put his team in a bad situation.

Back to the Thomas play from 2010 for a second. The Jags were 4-4 coming in. The Texans were also 4-4. The Jags won three of their next four and finished that season 8-8. The Texans dropped to 6-10.

Sometimes plays like this, and losses like these, can spiral a team downward. And likewise, teams that win these kinds of games can be galvanized. The Titans will take on the Texans, who have now kicked aside the 49ers as the NFL’s “best” team. Of course, that only likely makes Houston more vulnerable to lose.

Meanwhile, the Lions draw the team that knocked off the 49ers — the Vikings. They’ll be at home, but do we trust these Lions right now at 1-2, prone to some head-scratching mistakes like they were down the stretch last season when they went 5-6 and then were stomped in the postseason?

Add them all up and the Lions have gone 6-9 since Week Five of 2011. Just another team trying to find itself.

One lingering (sad) Titans note

There were so many positives for the Titans Sunday that it hurts us to bring this up. But in a game that featured 85 points and 1,020 yards from scrimmage, Chris Johnson (or CJ0K, as one of my clever Twitter followers called him this week) contributed a mere 29 on 15 touches. Three of those rushes netted 34 yards. So that means the other 12 actually averaged minus-0.4 yards — that's negative fifteen inches — per attempt. Losing seven, seven and eight yards on three carries will tend to kill the average.

How far Johnson has fallen: We now must measure his carries in feet. Or inches. Next will be negative numbers. He can’t really keep insisting it’s someone else’s fault, can he?

Young QBs — up, down and sideways

The biggest story entering the season — before the replacement refs thing caught fire — was the proliferation of young quarterbacks. First- and second-year QBs were (and are) everywhere around the league. Ten of them, in fact.

All 10 remain standing. Some are more secure than others.

Let’s take stock of where those 10 QBs are based solely on this season’s results. Nothing they did last season (ahem, Cam Newton) will be considered for this list. Here they are, ranked one through 10, through three games:

1. Redskins QB Robert Griffin III — Poor first half against the Bengals, but he led a furious comeback and now has given his team a chance to win in each of the past two losses. Some mental mistakes and poor defense prevented that, and the Redskins are 1-2. Griffin has been very good, turning the ball over only twice and accounting for 956 yards (747 passing, 209 rushing) and 15 Redskins scoring drives. As advertised.

2. Bengals QB Andy Dalton — I have been critical of his mistakes, and there’s no doubt that a lot of his passing yards have come after the catch. Not necessarily a bad thing, just something worth noting. And Dalton’s mistakes (including a terrible pick-6 from his own endzone) often have been strange and inexcusable, but he’s engineering an offense that now has scored 34 and 38 points in consecutive games.

3. Vikings QB Christian Ponder — Considering the constraints on the offense, Ponder has been pretty darned good. His 70.1-percent completion mark leads this group, and his 2-1 mark looks pretty darned good when you consider the second-half performance against the Jaguars and the upset of the 49ers, who shut down Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford.

4. Titans QB Jake Locker — There have been some strange and poor mistakes, such as the strip sack against the Patriots and the dropped snap on Sunday, but he otherwise has been getting hot with his arm and making enough plays with his legs. His monster game against the Lions bumps him ahead of Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, the past two No. 1 picks.

5. Panthers QB Cam Newton — He’s this high for one game, really. Newton was unglued in the losses to the Bucs and Giants but has shown how dangerous he can be when, ironically, he has a somewhat short leash. When the Panthers are smart with their play-calling and don’t lean on Newton to throw, they are dangerous. But he has not progressed as a passer at all since last season — in fact, he has regressed in some ways.

6. Colts QB Andrew Luck — The number that shocks me the most is his 53.3 completion percentage. The four INTs don’t stun me because he has had to throw 122 times, tied for fourth-most in the NFL, with no running game to speak of. Forty passes a game is too many, even for Luck. Those numbers will get better. He has been at his best at the ends of the second and fourth quarters.

7. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson — You could make the argument he could be fifth, ahead of Newton and Luck. But with one fewer game (this was written prior to Monday night), I am erring on the side of caution. Wilson was tepid Week One, solid Week Two. A win over the Packers likely would send him way, way up this list.

8. Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert — He sandwiched two late, clutch bombs to Cecil Shorts (one that should have won the game in Minnesota, one that did in Indy) around a miserable performance against the Texans. I still don’t like the barely-50 completion percentage (50.6, a hair below last season’s 50.8), but he’s making plays and not turning the ball over (zero INTs). Noticeably better in a few ways.

9. Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill — They are having him throw too much. Sunday’s comeback loss to the Jets in overtime, which featured Reggie Bush getting hurt, contributed to that with 36 throws. It also hasn’t helped that the receivers can’t make plays on their own. But Tannehill played far better in the win over the Raiders than he did in either loss. His early pick-six against the Jets changed momentum away from the Dolphins.

10. Browns QB Brandon Weeden — They have put a lot on Weeden’s older shoulders, and he has responded pretty well after a miserable, four-INT opener. Since then he has a 3-2 TD-INT ratio, which is good, but there are too many missed passes and chances. A real work in progress.

Whither Jason Witten?

What is going on with Cowboys TE Jason Witten? His nightmare season keeps getting worse.

With two false starts and three dropped passed Sunday (after dropping three against the Seahawks), we’re officially in crisis time with the usually consistent tight end.

Did playing in Week One with a lacerated spleen hurt him? Did he do more damage on that one act of toughness than can be reversed?

Well, we don’t know. Witten almost always talks after games, but he was silent after this one. It’s his right. Not every player has to be accountable for their actions every game, like Witten was last week when he took full responsibility for his bad game. Local beat writers thought the last time Witten didn’t speak after a game was in 2008, after he suffered an injury and was not in the locker room when the media entered.

But it’s stunning because this is now three bad games in a row for him. How bad did it get? Witten was even beaten for a sack by Buccaneers DE Michael Bennett, the brother of Witten’s one-time backup, Martellus. By the way, Witten has only eight catches for 76 yards. Martellus Bennett became the first Giant ever to score in his first three games with the team and has 15 catches for 185 yards with his new club after escaping Dallas.

Jets earn Pyrrhic victory

Beating the Dolphins was nice but expected. Losing CB Darrelle Revis — we expect to hear he has a torn ACL Monday — is a death sentence, though.

The Jets must face three Super Bowl-caliber teams in the 49ers, Texans and Patriots in the next four games, along with a Colts team that is among the league leaders in pass attempts behind rookie QB Andrew Luck. The good news is that the next three games are at home, but it’s hardly consolation.

The offense was sad in the win over the Dolphins and has been mostly missing since the 48 points on Opening Day against the Bills.

Losing Revis will be a deathblow. He was one of the few true difference makers on a good defensive unit but one that is not as individually talented as past Jets defenses have been.

Best nickname I heard Sunday

On Twitter, @Rosenshtein came up with a beauty for Vikings second-year TE Kyle Rudolph — “the Red Zone Reindeer.” Well done, sir.