That’s all that stood between the San Francisco 49ers and a lead over the Baltimore Ravens late in Sunday’s Super Bowl. On fourth down, with less than two minutes to go in the game and down by just five points, the 49ers lined up at the Ravens 5-yard line with receiver Michael Crabtree wide right. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick dropped back to pass and…
What happened next has been a hot topic of discussion for analysts today, and it will most likely remain a sore subject for 49ers fans for years to come. Some argue Ravens Cornerback Jimmy Smith illegally held Crabtree as he raced to catch the pass. Others feel both players committed penalties.
The play ended with the pass falling incomplete. The referees did not call a penalty, and the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl 34-31.
So did the refs miss the call and potentially cost the 49ers a Super Bowl win? To explore that question you need to understand how the NFL defines defensive holding.
Here’s rule 8-4-6 from the league rulebook:
It is defensive holding if a player grasps an eligible offensive player (or his jersey) with his hands, or extends an arm or arms to cut off or encircle him.
That might seem pretty straightforward, but rule 8-4-4 gives defenders some leeway when covering a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
The defender is allowed to maintain continuous and unbroken contact within the five-yard zone, so long as the receiver has not moved beyond a point that is even with the defender.
And even when the defender and the receiver are five yards past the line of scrimmage, rule 8-4-4 does allow for “incidental contact.”
…incidental contact may exist between receiver and defender as long as it does not materially affect or significantly impede the receiver, creating a distinct advantage.
To sum up, Smith was allowed to make some contact with Crabtree within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The goal line was five yards from the line of scrimmage. Once the players passed the goal line, Smith could not “materially affect or significantly impede (Crabtree), creating a distinct advantage.”
Now let’s watch GIFs of the play at different angles and speeds.
Here’s a still shot from that GIF that shows Smith and Crabtree, at bottom, beyond the goal line.
You can also see Smith and Crabtree tangled up past the goal line in this still shot.
49ers fans are probably focused on Smith’s left arm, which appears to around Crabtree. However, the position of Crabtree’s left hand may be just as important. It may be pushing on Smith’s helmet.
Let’s go back to the rulebook. According to rule 8-5-1, a receiver can not initiate “contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass.”
Analyst Phil Simms reportedly argued on television that Crabtree pushed Smith away, and that the referees may not have called a penalty because both players were committing fouls.
Finally, here is video of the play at both full speed and in slow motion.
Yahoo! Sports said Crabtree was “shell-shocked” after the game.
“[The referee] missed two or three in the game but that was it right there, the Super Bowl was right there.
“I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t know, man. What do you think? I thought it was holding.”
“There’s no question in my mind that there was a hold on Crabtree on the last play,” 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh added.
Of course, even if a penalty had been called, there is no guarantee that the 49ers would have won the game. The penalty most likely would’ve given San Francisco a new set of downs with the ball at about the Ravens’ 2-yard line. The Ravens defense may have gone on to stymy the 49ers and keep them out of the end zone. Perhaps 49ers Running Back Frank Gore would have fumbled, or Quarterback Colin Kaepernick would have thrown an interception. The 49ers might have scored on the next play, only to have Ravens Quarterback Joe Flacco then lead his team on a game-winning drive.
Still, it’s safe to say that for years to come, many 49ers fans will be wondering what might have happened if a flag had been thrown.