The Dallas Cowboys were penalized just two times for 31 yards in Sunday’s 31-30 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, but the biggest miscue was a penalty that won’t show up on the stat sheet because the Lions chose to decline it.
After the Lions burned their final timeout on defense on second down with 1:14 left to play and the Cowboys at the Detroit 35-yard line, offensive coordinator Bill Callahan called Philip Tanner’s number on third-and-14. He ran for nine yards, but left tackle Tyron Smith was flagged for holding, stopping the clock with 1:07 to play.
Assuming Smith needed to hold to spring Tanner, and without it Tanner would have been stopped for no gain, the hold put the Cowboys in makeable field goal position. But without that flag, the clock keeps running and the Cowboys would have had the option of running the game clock down to under 30 seconds before taking a delay of game penalty and punting, or giving Dan Bailey a shot at his third 53-yard field goal of the game.
It’s unlikely the Cowboys would have opted for the field goal, as a miss would have given the Lions the ball near the 40 yard line need just a field goal to tie. Had Smith not been flagged for holding, it’s almost certain the Cowboys would have punted the ball away with under 30 seconds to play and the Lions needing a field goal to force overtime. So there’s no guarantee the Cowboys win without the penalty, but it opened up options for a Lions team that badly needed them.
By declining the penalty, the Lions allowed the Cowboys the 9-yard gain and Bailey responded by making a 44-yard field goal.
Had they accepted the penalty, they would have pushed the Cowboys well out of field goal range, but would have afforded Dallas the opportunity to run 40 seconds off the clock by replaying third down.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz had to choose between being down by 6 points with a minute to go, or, best-case, being down by 3 points with just under 30 seconds to go. He chose time over points, and quarterback Matthew Stafford delivered.
In a game where the Dallas offensive line played pretty well in allowing no sacks and committing no false starts in a hostile dome filled with raucous Lions fans, their one holding penalty gave Stafford the final chance he needed to pull out an improbable win.
This loss certainly isn’t all on Smith, as there is plenty of blame to go around, but it’s a shame that a unit that played so well for most of the game should commit such a costly error in the waning seconds.