Super Bowl Officiating Proves Historically Lenient After Non-Call on Ravens
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As San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's desperation 4th-and-goal pass intended for receiver Michael Crabtree fell out of the end zone untouched towards the end of Super Bowl XLVII, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh yelled and pleaded with head linesman Steve Stelljes and side judge Joe Larrew for a holding call on Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith.
Harbaugh reiterated his opinion post-game: "no question in my mind there was a pass interference and a hold."
During that same interview, the losing coach also stated his disagreement with a previous pass interference call against San Francisco's Chris Culliver earlier in the period.
Though NFL Rule 8-4 authorizes certain contact within five yards of the line of scrimmage, replays indicated that contact between Crabtree and Smith persisted past the five-yard mark, which coincidentally, was also the goal line.
Still, replays did not necessarily inconclusively indicate whether this contact was illegal or plainly incidental (and therefore legal).
Rule 8-4-4 allows for incidental contact which does not materially or significantly impede the receiver, while 8-4-3 specifically states that if a receiver attempts to evade a defender with the quarterback in the pocket, the defender cannot initiate contact that restricts or otherwise impedes or redirects the offensive player.
At the very least, fouls did not appear overtly abundant in real time. Therefore, the no call may have very well been correct for that situation given the play at hand and the holistic Super Bowl officiating philosophy.
Unfortunately for no-call enthusiasts, nary four downs later and with just 12 seconds remaining in regulation, it was an apparent hold by a Ravens offensive lineman that went unflagged, an ultimately meaningless sequence as punter Sam Koch exited the Baltimore end zone for an inconsequential safety to narrow the gap to 34-31.
Though time was of the essence, Rule 14-1-11—which governs the spot of penalty enforcement behind the offensive goal line when a penalty is committed by the offense—does not allow officials to replace time on the game clock that has legally expired during an ensuing play, even by means of such a holding penalty.
Nonetheless, the perceived miss provided ammunition for some 49ers faithful who felt the previous sequence with Crabtree had also been incorrectly officiated.
This is hardly the first time a controversial no call has occurred toward the end of a Super Bowl.
With a 31-25 score and the Pittsburgh Steelers driving on 4th-and-5 from their 33-yard line late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLV, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger's pass intended for Mike Wallace fell to the ground as Packers defender Tramon Williams and Wallace exchanged what was ruled at the time to have been incidental contact.
A pass interference penalty would have given Pittsburgh renewed life and another chance to come from behind, but officials John Hussey, Doug Rosenbaum and Scott Helverson swallowed their whistles and granted Williams the no call.
The Packers ultimately won Super Bowl XLV, and former VP of Officiating Mike Pereira confirmed for FOX Sports that in his opinion, the no call was indeed the correct call.
Championship and high-stakes deciding atmospheres in general such as overtimes or final possession situations routinely pose unique challenges to officiating with a very real argument existing in NFL football's one-game championship (Super Bowl) epitomizing such a pressure-packed environment. MLB's World Series, the NBA Finals and the NHL's Stanley Cup Final are each distributed over a four to seven-game period, but the Super Bowl begins and ends on a single Sunday in early February. Television ratings associated with any of these single games attest to this phenomenon.
Accordingly, each call in such a highly conspicuous contest becomes susceptible to heightened scrutiny, which, in some instances, may possess the collateral effect of modifying officials' behavior. That may result in calls, or a lack thereof, that otherwise may not have existed.
Prior to the fourth-quarter hubbub, the 49ers and Ravens engaged in a post-interception tussle with 6:55 remaining in the second quarter. Though the large scrum produced multiple instances of conduct that could have been interpreted as disqualifying behavior, officials issued only two token penalties, one against each team.
In lieu of penalizing each player who participated in the small brawl, referee Jerome Boger's crew instead charged 49ers tackle Joe Staley and Ravens cornerback Corey Graham with offsetting 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalties.
Meanwhile, though Baltimore's Cary Williams appeared to outright shove an official—an offense specifically prohibited by rule 12-3-1 with the preface, "Under no condition is an official to allow a player to..."—the Ravens cornerback was not penalized.
Prior to the melee, several instances of dead ball conduct between the clubs that may have ordinarily produced unsportsmanlike conduct or roughing penalties in a non-postseason affair resulted in nary a scolding from the nearest Super Bowl arbiter.
Historically, no Super Bowl has experienced more penalties than Dallas-Denver in Super Bowl XII's 20 flags, a number equaled only by 2004's Super Bowl XXXVIII between the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots.
By contrast, five Super Bowls have escaped with four or fewer penalties, with Super Bowl X leading the way with just two (both Dallas, vs. Pittsburgh). Fourteen Super Bowls have seen teams commit no greater than two penalties.
The fewest penalties committed by one team over the course of an entire season remains at 19, produced by the 1937 Detroit Lions. In second place is 1935's Boston squad (21 penalties) followed by 1936's Philadelphia Eagles (24).
Meanwhile, 22 penalties is the NFL's all-time single-game record for "most by one team." The number rises to 37 for both teams combined (1951, Bears-Browns).
No NFL game since Pittsburgh-Philadelphia in November of 1940 has escaped without a single flag.
Nonetheless, the Super Bowl is a special breed. Even if the Rules Book is airtight and leaves absolutely no discretion—for instance, the Cary Williams incident—officials in such a pressure-packed situation will rarely, if ever, enforce the rule as written in regards to unsportsmanlike conduct or roughing, and especially in regards to an ejection.
In 2009, Pittsburgh's James Harrison came close to that fine line—had it been a regular season game, it could have been argued that he crossed that line and then some. At the time, commentator John Madden declared, "he should be thrown out for that."
Harrison remained in the game to help his Steelers win a ring.
Ejections notwithstanding, 15 yards in the Super Bowl can conceivably be the difference between a win and a loss.
Should Super Bowl XLVII's officials have withheld their whistles/flags?
As the 49ers can attest to, failure to secure just five additional passing yards proved absolutely fatal on Sunday.
Furthermore, the league, its team owners, etc. simply do not want a player ejected from the championship game. Even in baseball, no player or coach has been thrown out of a World Series game—and that's a best-of-seven series—since umpire Tim Welke tossed Braves skipper Bobby Cox in 1996.
Ejections simply do not generally occur during a championship series and absolutely do not exist during a winner-take-all championship game.
And as football history continues to confirm, neither does the game-deciding penalty at the end of a close Super Bowl.
Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.
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