Breaking down the call: What the heck happened on the 3rd-down redo?

Pride of Detroit

Late in the third quarter in a wild game between the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks, one of the strangest sequences in officiating occured.

The Seahawks were facing a pivotal third-and-16 on the edge of field goal position while holding a 31-23 lead. On the surface, it looked like the Lions defense got a huge stop, with pressure forcing Geno Smith to throw it to a receiver who had his back turned to him. But after the officials conferred on the play, they announced that there was a clock issue and the down had to be replayed.

In what can only be described as a quintessential Detroit Lions turn of fate, the Seahawks caught the Lions off-guard on the redo, and ran a draw play that went for a 36-yard touchdown.

So what exactly happened here? Did the refs screw the Lions out of a third down stop?

Let’s take a closer look.

We’re going to jump right to the official’s explanation on the play, as provided to the media following the game. Here’s the conversation between the Seahawks’ pool reporter and NFL referee Clay Martin:

Question: Could you explain where your crew found the 40-second play clock malfunction on the third down in the third quarter?

Martin: “After the intentional grounding play, we had set up for third down and our side judge noticed an error in the game clock. Prior to that snap, he came running in and shut it down to fix the game clock. So, we fixed the game clock to where the clock was when the ball hit the ground on the grounding play. So essentially, that third down you’re referencing never happened because the side judge came and shut down prior to the snap. So, we never had, if you will, that third down play because the side judge came running in and shut that down prior to fixing the game clock.”

Question: So, it wasn’t the play clock, it was the game clock?

Martin: “The game clock was off and it was wrong when that grounding play happened. So the side judge came in to correct the game clock, which you need to do before the next snap and he came in shutting it down.”

Question: Had it elapsed too much time?

Martin: “Correct. We were setting the game clock to the time when the ball hit the ground.”

So according to this ref, too much time had run off the clock on the previous play—and intentional ground call on Smith. Prior to the snap of the nullified third-and-16, the side judge noticed the error and attempted to stop the play.

Now let’s fact check.

Indeed, there was a clock error. As you can see in the two screenshots below, Smith’s pass feel incomplete with 40 seconds on the clock, and when they lined up for the next play, six errant seconds had run off the clock.

Okay, that part checks out.

But did the official really stop the play before the snap? This one is hard to tell. The side judge is off screen—and the All-22 does not include this play, since it never truly happened. The best we can do is rely on our ears for the whistle, but that doesn’t do much help with Ford Field being so loud.

If you listen closely, you can hear a faint pulsing of the whistle right around the exact time of the snap. That whistle gets louder a few seconds later when the pass has already left Smith’s hands. Take a listen.

So did the official blow the play dead before the snap? It’s really close. You can certainly make the argument that it took waaaaaaaaayyy too long for the officials to notice this mistake, especially when it took them a good 30-45 seconds to figure out if the previous play was intentional grounding.

But here’s where Lions fans don’t have a legitimate argument: the officials did not take a third-down stop away from Detroit. Why? Because the Seahawks gave up on this play. Here’s Smith on whether he heard the play blown dead.

“Yeah, everyone did,” Smith said. “Their defensive players stopped, we all stopped.”

Looking back on the play, that is a slight-to-medium exaggeration. Most players—especially those at the line of scrimmage—played through the entire play. But you can literally see Smith say the words, “Who blew the whistle?” on the broadcast view.

But it is certainly true that some pivotal Seahawks players stopped on the play. The entire reason that pass went to a Seattle receiver with his back turned is because that wideout had stopped running.

Those players at the bottom left of the screen are the one who heard the whistle blow, because the side judge was right there. In fact, a Lions coach (looks like maybe defensive line coach Todd Wash) heard the whistle blow, which is why he was doing this instead of celebrating a third-down stop:

So, to conclude, here’s what happened.

  • The refs screwed up the clock on the previous play.
  • They took too long to notice their error.
  • They may or may not have stopped the play in time before the snap.
  • The Lions never really got a true third-down stop, because several players heard the whistle and stopped playing.
  • Detroit ultimately screwed up by letting a third-and-16 run go for 36 yards.

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