CHICAGO - The Detroit Lions were hosed on a beautiful day for ugly football in Chicago.
But don't blame referee Gene Steratore. All he did was uphold what might be the worst rule in the NFL.
Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 of the NFL rule book turned a great game-winning catch into the Lions' 21st consecutive road loss.
The call came with 25 seconds remaining and the Lions trailing 19-14 with the ball at the Bears 25-yard line. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson outjumped Bears cornerback Zack Bowman, caught the ball, got two feet down, landed in the end zone with possession while holding the football firmly in his right hand until planting it on the ground.
But the NFL rule book states:
"If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball AFTER HE TOUCHES THE GROUND, whether in the field of play or the end zone."
After two more incompletions to Johnson in the end zone, the Lions walked off Soldier Field as losers for the 32nd time in their past 34 games. Coach Jim Schwartz said it was the correct call, and players also refused to blame the officials for yet another Detroit disappointment.
"I saw the play on the Jumbotron and got excited," left tackle Jeff Backus said. "I thought we pulled it out. But we never should have put ourselves in that situation to begin with. We didn't do enough on offense to win. So that play doesn't matter enough. We never should have been in that situation in the first place."
Adding injury to insult, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford did not return to the game after injuring his right (throwing) shoulder while being sacked by defensive end Julius Peppers. Schwartz said it was too early to guess how long Stafford will be out. Former Vikings No. 3 quarterback Shaun Hill finished Sunday's game and will start for as long as Stafford is out.
From the time Stafford exited with 20 seconds left in the first half until Detroit's final drive started with 1:32 left in the game, the Lions' offense mustered 14 yards and one first down.
The Bears outgained the Lions in total yards 463-168 -- including Jay Cutler's 372 yards passing -- but trailed most of the game because they also had four turnovers and nine penalties for 100 yards.
The Lions' defense played well, including an un-Detroit-like fourth-quarter goal line stand in which the Bears were stopped on four consecutive runs from the 1-yard line. Unfortunately for the Lions, they also gave up touchdown passes of 89 and 28 yards to running back Matt Forte. The latter gave the Bears the lead and set up the controversy surrounding possibly the worst rule in the NFL.
It looked to me like Johnson was no longer in the process of making the catch when the ball came loose. He had the ball in his possession while rolling on his backside. Steratore, the referee, disagreed.
"The process was not finished until he finished that roll and the entire process of that catch," Steratore told a pool reporter after the game.
It doesn't help the NFL that their own officials have trouble interpreting when the "act of making a catch" ends. The Johnson play was ruled a touchdown originally by the closest official, overturned by another official on the field and then reviewed by the officials in the instant replay booth.
If a runner breaks the goal line with possession of the ball, it's a touchdown because the officials signal touchdown, time stops and whatever happens after that is irrelevant. A defender can swat the ball into the 10th row, but it's still a touchdown.
It seems to me that if a receiver establishes possession with two feet inbounds, the play should also end right there with a touchdown.
Of course, arguing about it doesn't change the Lions' 0-1 record.
"We have to move past it," Johnson said. "Can't do nothing about the call. I'm not saying nothing about the referees. It is what it is."