What’s the one play that is most remembered from a really big game? A ninth-inning strikeout from an ace reliever? A leaping save by a keeper? A powerful dunk in overtime?
Not infrequently, it is a disputed call by a referee.
Many fans, especially those from the Philadelphia area, are going to look back on Sunday’s Super Bowl and immediately think about a penalty that was called in the dying minutes of the game. And correctly or not, they will blame it for the Eagles’ 38-35 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The score was tied at 35 with 1:54 to play, and Kansas City was driving at the Philadelphia 15. But it faced a third-and-eight situation. Patrick Mahomes’s pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster fell short, so it seemed Kansas City would have to settle for a field goal and the Eagles would get the ball back with almost two minutes to tie or win the game.
But a flag was thrown, and Philadelphia cornerback James Bradberry was called for defensive holding. Now Kansas City had a first and 10 at the 11. In the end, it kicked a field goal, but crucially did so with only 8 seconds remaining, leaving Philly almost no time to come back.
As fans repeatedly, even obsessively, watched replays of the alleged penalty, a consensus quickly emerged on message boards, Twitter and anguished phone calls. Bradberry had certainly touched Smith-Schuster, and maybe technically it was defensive holding. But the call seemed marginal, and making it at such a crucial moment seemed to violate an unwritten rule: “Don’t decide a game on an insignificant penalty.”
The Fox announcer Greg Olsen and the noted football fan LeBron James were among those who criticized the call. It was the only defensive holding or pass interference call at any time during the game.
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- Eagles Come Close: Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts scored four touchdowns in a performance with only one blemish, but it was a big one.
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Certainly the call is likely to linger in the minds of Philadelphians. Forty years later, local fans still rail about the linesman Leon Stickle, who failed to call offside an Islanders goal in the Stanley Cup finals, which helped defeat the Flyers.
And of course, Kansas City-based fans were likely to take the position, at least in this case, that calls have to be made by the book, regardless of the game situation.
Bradberry himself took the high road, saying: “It was a holding. I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide.” Other Eagles also declined to blame the call.
“The defender grabbed the jersey with his right hand and restricted him from releasing to the outside. So, therefore, we called defensive holding,” Carl Cheffers, the referee, said.
There were other calls in the game that proved contentious, including several judgment calls on whether catches were really catches.
In one particularly strange sequence, Dallas Goedert of the Eagles caught a pass and went out of bounds. The Eagles then snapped the next play, only to have officials rule that Philadelphia had made a substitution and Kansas City had not been given time to counter it. The resulting delay allowed Kansas City to challenge the catch. This seeming good fortune was suddenly reversed when the catch was ruled good, another decision that puzzled many.
The closest Super Bowl play to the Bradberry defensive holding call may have come in the game played in February 2013 between the 49ers and Ravens. On fourth down with less than two minutes left, Colin Kaepernick of the Niners threw an incomplete pass in the end zone to Michael Crabtree, who seemed to be have been held by Jimmy Smith of the Ravens. In this case, there was no call, and outrage erupted on both sides. No doubt many of those arguing one way in 2013 were singing a different tune 10 years later depending on the team they were rooting for.
In the end of course, it is rare that one play ever truly decides a championship. The Eagles were hurt badly by giving up a first-half fumble that led to a scoop-and-score. After leading by 10 at the half, the Eagles didn’t look the same in the next 30 minutes on either side of the ball. And Kansas City’s final drive came a little too easily. There was plenty of blame to go around.
“There were multiple other moments in that game to take care of business, and I think that we were close,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “We could have won that game without that call being the determining factor.”
But that is never going to stop those who for years will play the would’ve-could’ve-should’ve game and wind up pointing the finger at a call they think should never have been made.