When do NFL coaches use a challenge for purposes other than overturning a call? When they're looking to channel their inner James Naismith, of course.
We've written on this topic before, but it merits reinforcement because you don't see it often. When Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz challenged an incomplete pass Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, he did so as much to give his tired defense a breather -- "one of those basketball-type challenges," Schwartz said -- as to seek reversal.
Let's set up the decision.
The Lions were trailing 10-6 with four minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The Philadelphia Eagles had a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line, and the Lions defense had already been on the field for about 25 of the game's first 40 minutes. A touchdown would have given the Eagles a two-score lead against a Lions offense that was struggling to get moving.
On first down, quarterback Michael Vick threw a hurried pass to running back LeSean McCoy in the left flat. The ball arrived before McCoy turned around, and it bounced off his back. As the whistle blew, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch grabbed the ball off the ground in the event the play was ruled a backward pass and therefore a fumble.
Referee Bill Vinovich ruled the pass incomplete, and replays made clear the ball traveled nearly two yards forward -- from almost the 12-yard line, where Vick threw it, to inside the 11, where it hit McCoy.
So why did Schwartz use one of his two challenges, and risk one of his three timeouts, to seek reversal? As Schwartz explained afterward, his defense needed a physical and mental regrouping -- much like a basketball team that has withstood an extended run of points from its opponent. Schwartz also noted how important a red zone turnover would have been at that point if officials saw something different in a further examination of the replay.
Here's how Schwartz explained his thought process:
"It was at least a little bit close. We had clear recovery and they had made a good drive to that point, and I was talking to the guys upstairs and I said 'Do you have a replay?' And they didn't. And I said 'Well, what did it look like?' and they said 'Well, it's close.' And I said 'If it's close, I'm going to throw it.' Because ... the reward is so great, if we're able to get a turnover.
"Imagine if it had been the other way and it had been slightly backwards and we didn't get a replay and we didn't challenge it and we were sick to our stomachs after the game saying, 'Jeez, we could have gotten a turnover in the red zone, taken points off the board and everything else.'
"And literally part of the thought process there was 'Hey, look, we could use a timeout now anyway,' and a challenge is always a long time out. You know, they go under the hood and give everybody a chance to regroup and things like that. You can sort of, you know, catch your breath and think about your next call and things like that. So, more of looking at it as an extended timeout. Might not have done it if that was our last challenge but it was our first challenge, we still had another one that we could handle it."
I went back and timed the break the Lions' defense got as a result. Nearly three minutes elapsed from the moment the play was over until the Eagles broke the huddle for their next play. The Lions ended up making a stand, benefiting from an offensive pass-interference call on tight end Brent Celek's apparent touchdown and also getting a sack from defensive end Cliff Avril on third down. An ensuing field goal left the Lions with a more manageable 13-6 deficit, and we know what happened after that.
From time to time, I'll provide updates on how NFC North coaches are faring with their challenges. Below is a six-week glimpse.