The officiating in Super Bowl XLVII was, on the whole, atrocious. Most of the discussion in the wake of the game has centered on the pivotal 4th-and-goal play on the 49ers’ final drive. That’s understandable, as it was the last play from scrimmage that San Francisco had to take the lead. I would argue that Jimmy Smith was guilty of holding on that play, but I also acknowledge that there is some gray area there.
The more glaring and troubling infraction in that final sequence comes on the play before, where Smith gets away with a helmet-to-helmet hit on Crabtree. The prevailing reasoning why defensive holding was not called on 4th down seems to be that people don’t want the officials deciding games. That logic is problematic, as an absence of enforcement of the rules is just as influential as referees enforcing them. Still, that’s what some people believe.
Of course, apply that logic to the third down hit on Crabtree and you run into the NFL’s current crisis of conscience. The best-case scenario is that the officials simply missed it. It is, after all, a personal foul. Smith leads with the crown of his helmet and makes contact to Crabtree’s head before the receiver has had a chance to defend himself. Granted, the standard of defenseless receiver is something that the NFL has struggled to define, but based on calls that have been made this season, this would certainly count.
A more troubling possibility is that the refs just “let ’em play”, which means that the NFL is once again full of shit when it comes to player safety. Lucky for the NFL, Crabtree was not sidelined nor concussed by the hit. Still, the signal they send by not enforcing this hit is that player safety is a concern, unless it’s an important moment in an important game.
I don’t mean to harp on this to bemoan the Ravens getting the benefit of bad calls. It’s still possible the Ravens could win if this were called correctly. Instead of 4th down, San Francisco would have a first and goal from the two and a half yards out. Say the 49ers run it in on the next play and also convert the inevitable two-point conversion attempt. The Ravens would still have about a minute and a half to put together a field goal drive to tie, or, if the Niners missed the two-point chance, win the game. Given how well Baltimore had played on offense that night, there’s not a terrible chance that they get that. Alas, we’ll never know.
That’s a much more dramatic finish that we were deprived of seeing. It also happens that it would have been in keeping with the NFL’s pledge to protect its players. Super Bowl XLVII was a mess for a lot of reasons. An entertaining mess, ultimately, but also a troubling one.