Normally, I would defend Jim Schwartz's decision to run the ball on third-and-4 with two minutes left in the game with percentages and probabilities. And I could certainly do that again, because I'm positive the numbers are on my side. But the argument against that quickly becomes: "Well, the game isn't all about percentages and sometimes you need to look at the specific situation and screw the numbers." While I think that's a poor, uninformed response, I accept it.
So, instead, I'll use specific examples to show why Schwartz wasn't being "too conservative' or "playing to lose the game. First let's list the most common complaints about Schwartz's play calling.
You play to the Lions' strengths. Pass the ball, that is the teams' identity.
I agree that the Lions offense is built from the passing game. But the risk here is too great. A first down conversion is no guarantee (and a rush is no guarantee that the Lions don't convert), and giving the Colts defense an extra 40 seconds is way too much. True the reward is an all-but-guaranteed win if successful, but I don't think the chance of success is that much higher with a pass than it is with a run on a third-and-4.
You have to put the ball in your playmaker's hands when the game is on the line. Throw it to Calvin Johnson.
Well, the Lions did exactly that on the previous drive. Facing a third and 10, the Lions could have run the ball and either ran 40 seconds off the clock or forced the Colts to take their second timeout. Instead, they took a risk and threw the ball to Johnson. A catch would've almost certainly won the game. But the pass was behind Calvin and he dropped it. The Lions punted, giving the Colts the ball with four minutes left and two timeouts left.
You play to win the game.
Uh, yeah. That's what the Lions were doing. People assume, for some reason, that being overly aggressive ("going for the jugular" is what they playfully call it) is giving your team the best chance to win the game. Well, let me take you way back to 2010 in Detroit. The Lions were in an almost identical situation. Up three, the Lions faced a third-and-6 against the New York Jets at the two-minute warning. The Lions, with Drew Stanton in as quarterback after Matthew Stafford went down with an injury, dialed up a play-action pass that fell incomplete. The Jets got the ball back with 1:40 left, rather than 60 seconds if the Lions had opted to run the ball. The Jets easily went 47 yards in that time and kicked the game-tying field goal. Later, they won in overtime.
Obviously, things are a little different with Stafford at the helm, but Stafford hasn't exactly been as solid as we all assumed last year.
The Lions could have run a similar play to the Stanton one and given him the option to run it if the route was covered (supposedly, that's what the play call was supposed to be against the Jets), but the Lions ran that kind of play on the previous drive. Stafford faked the run, and tried to roll out. But the Colts were expecting it and Stafford had no choice to throw it away or endure a huge hit. It may have worked if they tried it again, but the Colts' defensive ends were staying home and I doubt the play ends up any different than the run Linehan dialed up.
Why call a toss, of all running plays?
This is the easiest, cheapest argument to make. Should the Lions have called a sweep? Obviously not, it didn't work. Criticizing play calls is way too easy with hindsight. But I certainly don't blame Scott Linehan for dialing up that specific play. The Lions had not been able to run the ball up the middle all game. Outside of Joique Bell's big run, the Lions had run the ball up the middle 21 times for 48 yards (2.3/carry). From my counts, the Lions ran a toss four times this game prior to this play for 21 yards (5.25/carry). It didn't end up working, but there was certainly evidence that it might.
Here's my argument: The Lions were TOO AGGRESSIVE on the penultimate drive, and that was a big factor in their loss.
The Lions had the ball first-and-10 at the Colts' 45 yard line with 5:06 left when they ran their first play. It was a Leshoure run up the middle for no gain. The Lions then faced a second-and-10 with 4:24. They threw two incompletions and gave the ball back to the Colts with 4:02 left and two timeouts.
If you want to criticize the Lions' play-calling, this was the drive that deserves the most heat. If the Lions had run the ball on all three downs: one of three things would've happened.
1) The Colts would have used their timeouts, which would result in Indianapolis getting the ball with the same amount of time left (about four minutes), but zero timeouts. This means after the Colts scored their first touchdown (with 2:39 left), they would be forced to onside kick the ball, or kick the ball off and likely get the ball back with 0:30 left, needing a touchdown.
2) The Colts would not have used their timeouts and the Lions would've been able to burn at least 1:30 off the clock. The Colts would then have 2:30 and two timeouts left two score two touchdowns. Again, the game would likely come down to an onside kick.
3) The Colts use a timeout for one play, let the clock run for the other. In this scenario, the Colts would get the ball with around 3:10 left and a timeout. Again, it seems likely that the Colts would score their first touchdown at, or after the two minute warning. Thus another onside kick is likely.
In all three scenarios, the Lions win the game assuming they recover an onside kick. While that is no gimme, it's certainly puts the numbers highly in their favor. Not only would the Colts have to recover an onside kick, they would have to subsequently score a touchdown with almost no time on the clock. The runs would have been the correct play, but the Lions were too aggressive and it cost them. Yes, the Lions were too aggressive.
Of course, this is all moot if the Lions defense can manage to prevent two 70+ touchdown drives in four minutes, but that's a whole different article...