Sunday, February 3, 2013

NFL Super Bowl and Championship Game Call Leniency

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, NBA and 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, which may inevitably result in calls or a lack thereof that otherwise may not have existed.

Take Super Bowl XLVII's hyped fourth-quarter, fourth-and-goal play from the five-yard line with time running out. 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree and Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith made contact—whether incidental or illegal—as quarterback Colin Kaepernick's pass attempt fell out of the end zone untouched.

Options for head linesman Steve Stelljes and side judge Joe Larrew included:
Holding: With the line of scrimmage at the five-yard line and Kaepernick remaining in the pocket, contact between offensive and defensive player within the end zone was incontrovertibly beyond the five yards allotted by Rule 8-4-1. If illegal (e.g., if Smith was ruled to have impeded, redirected or restricted Crabtree), the foul would be defensive holding.
Pass Interference: If contact was ruled to have persisted as the ball was released on a pass attempt, Rule 8-5-2-c (grabbing an opponent's arm/restrict), Smith could have been flagged for DPI.
No Call: If contact beyond the five-yard zone pre-pass was ruled incidental (8-4-4) and contact during and after the pass attempt was ruled permissible (8-5-3), a no call would be correct.

The 49ers and Ravens engaged in a post-interception tussle with 6:55 remaining in the second quarter of Superbowl XLVII. Though the large scrum produced multiple instances of conduct that could have been interpreted as disqualifying behavior, officials issued only two offsetting 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 OT Joe Staley and Ravens CB Corey Graham with 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalties.

Meanwhile, Ravens corner 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..."—and was not penalized.

Prior to this, several instances of dead ball conduct between the clubs may have ordinarily produced unsportsmanlike conduct or roughing penalties in a non-postseason affair, but in this Super Bowl XLVII, resulted in nary a scolding from the nearest arbiter.

Indeed, 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). 14 Super Bowls have seen teams commit no greater than two penalties.

The fewest penalties committed by one team over the course of a single season remains 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 espcially in regards to an ejection. 15 yards in the Super Bowl can conceivably be the difference between a win and a loss.

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.

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 ejected from a World Series game—and that's a best-of-seven series—since umpire Tim Welke tossed Braves skipper Bobby Cox in 1996. Cox, coincidentally, is the only person in baseball history to have been thrown out of two World Series (he was previously ejected in 1992).

Ejections simply do not generally occur during a Championship Series and absolutely do not exist during a winner-take-all championship game.


Jack said...

Did you know what was going to happen or something? I check in at half time and this article about Super Bowl leniency in refereeing is posted and then we have this fourth quarter trainwreck of a sequence that NEITHER TEAM would be happy with no matter what was called. Ergo, the non call! I for one like it simply because I can't conclusively say it was wrong :)

I do agree with the argument that we would have seen more penalties if this game was back in Week 2 or something. I am shocked Williams was not kicked out though after reading this, I guess I'm not surprised. It is a players league after all, with the whole double murder acquittal plea bargain storyline. Not talking OJ Simpson either.

DanNJ316 said...

I thought that was a good no call on the 4th down play at the end of the game. Both guys were grabbing and shoving each other. I don't think you can throw a flag in that spot. I thought Jerome Boger and his crew did a solid job for the most part.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the no call at the end. Do not forget there also could have been an OPI for the push off against Smith's helmet. Crabtree was giving as much as he was getting and even with that I am not sure the ball was close enough that he could have caught it and landed in bounds

Anonymous said...

It became Crabtree trying to free himself from a defender who didn't let go.

With the benefit of replay, it's a terrible no-call.

Jim said...

I honestly think the failure on the part of the crew to do anything about Cary Williams violently pushing an official, much less ejecting the kid, set the tone for how this game was going to be called from that point on and just confirmed how they were loose before we even got to that point.

If the crew can't enforce one of the book's ejection absolutes (not just merely touching the official but flat out manhandling with a big shove), how can we expect them to enforce other issues of legality and penalties that are more grey than black & white?

hbk314 said...

Trying to break a blatant hold is not OPI.

Lindsay said...

Well this is certainly good to know if you're a player...

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