Five yards.

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.

Were the Ravens Holding? Breaking Down the Super Bowl’s Most Controversial Play 4 February,2013

  • 49erFaithful

    I am definitely one of those fans… Wondering what might have happened if that flag had been thrown (or a number of others earlier in the game). And though we will never know if the Niners would have been able to capitalize on that opportunity, I am very proud of what they were able to accomplish last night, and the rest of the season.

  • fairisfair

    they tried, they couldn’t do it. let’s face it and let the ravens celebrate the win.

  • excitinggame

    Has anyone else noticed that in the background there were at least two extra San Francisco players on the field, including #22?

  • Ray

    Forget what might have happened had the flag been thrown…the real question is would Crabtree have caught the ball if he hadn’t been held? The answer is clearly YES. It was an easy catch for any good receiver. Fact is, the 49ers WON Superbowl XLVII, and the referees LOST it.

    • Dennis Kelley

      Sour grapes sour grapes sooooooooouuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrr GRAPES!! AHAHHAHAHA

    • Hahaha. I love how every year, the 49ers have new excuses. Crabtree committed a foul, too, so if anything, it should have been offsetting penalties, and the same result.

    • SuperBowlChamps

      He never would have caught the ball because Reed was right there to knock him out of bounds.

  • It was clearly holding, and the Niners deserved another set of downs. Period. Having said that, the Niners didn’t get it done in their other chances, and that’s why they lost. So I won’t make excuses for my Niners. The fact is, thrills aside, it has been frustrating that the again and again this past season, the Niners fell behind early and often in so many games. That kind of thrill is inexcusable. Next year, we need to get it together so the come-from-behind schtick is retired.

    Still, it was so totally holding. I mean, LOOK at these gifs. Argh. Had Crabtree been untouched, he would have caught the ball, easy.

  • JC

    Seems to me that a much bigger “holding” issue is being missed here. Regarding the Ravens’ last offensive play:

    The NFL expressly states that “competitive integrity” is a
    “key element of NFL football”. Of course, on-the-fly holding is a common
    occurrence, which carries the standard penalty if caught. However, what I don’t
    understand is how a willful and premeditated act (before the play even started)
    in violation of a known rule does not fall under the above NFL statement.
    The 49ers, not knowing that they were going to systematically be held by
    multiple players, were at a grossly unfair disadvantage as a result of an order
    by their coach. “Intent” is a big part of our legal system and such intent in
    this case is beyond any doubt. Also, as in a civil law case, there must be
    damages; which in this case was the 49er’s loss of precious seconds to fairly
    play the clock. Just as the NFL has no specific rule for “bounties”, the
    Commissioner, through “player safety”, had total discretion in that regard.
    Maybe it would be viewed as just sour grapes. In any event,
    there should be at least a greater stink about this.

  • You also missed the clipping or block in the back on the Ravens 99 yard return. Nine times out of ten when a runback is so easy your grandmother could do it there are one or more penalties. Overall, I’d grade the refs a D- Nevertheless the Niners didn’t deserve to win after playing only one half a game of football and rolling over in the first half. Now once they can put it together they will become champions again.

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