Super Bowl’s Great Debate: When Is the Right Time For a Holding Call?

From a Washington Post story by Cindy Boren headlined “Super Bowl LVII’s great debate: When is the right time for a holding call?”:

LeBron James loathed it. So did Philadelphia Eagles fans everywhere, and it just so happened to help determine the outcome of Super Bowl LVII.

With 1:54 left in the fourth quarter of a tie game and the Kansas City Chiefs trying to complete an epic second-half comeback Sunday night, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes lobbed a third-down pass toward wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the end zone. It fell incomplete, and Kansas City seemed likely to attempt a field goal that would have given it a 38-35 lead but left plenty of time for Jalen Hurts and the Eagles, who had displayed little trouble matriculating the ball up and down the field.

But … officiating reared its head, and Eagles cornerback James Bradberry was flagged for holding Smith-Schuster. The Chiefs had a first down — and the opportunity to run down the clock before Harrison Butker’s game-winning field goal came with eight seconds left.

In the end, it was the right call by the letter of the law, but it came at the worst possible time, with tens of millions watching the nation’s biggest sporting event of the year. Called earlier in the game, a penalty on Bradberry’s gentle tug of Smith-Schuster’s jersey might have generated barely a ripple. And maybe the Chiefs would have won on a field goal anyway. But there was considerable outrage and debate about such a decisive play, and it largely dominated the conversation after what had been a classic game.

“His hand on his back had no effect on his route!” James, the NBA superstar, tweeted from a seat inside State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. “This game was too damn good for that call to dictate the outcome at the end. Damn! By the way I have no horse in the race. Just my professional opinion.”

Greg Olsen, the former NFL tight end turned Fox analyst, seemed to be in James’s camp. “On this stage, I think you let them play, finish this thing out,” he said on the game broadcast. “I don’t love that call.”

It was a judgment call for the officials, and it happens, for better or worse, all the time in the NFL — but that didn’t silence the discussion.

“The receiver went to the inside, and he was attempting to release to the outside,” referee Carl Cheffers told pool reporter Lindsay Jones after the game. “The defender grabbed the jersey with his right hand and restricted him from releasing to the outside. So therefore we called defensive holding. … It was a clear case of a jersey grab that caused restriction.”

Even Bradberry said he agreed with the call.

“It was a holding,” he told reporters in the Eagles’ locker room. “I tugged on the jersey. … They called it. I was hoping they would let it ride.”

Eagles all-pro center Jason Kelce also wouldn’t point a finger. “They called it, and that’s the way this goes,” he told reporters. “I’ve said this before: I’m never going to be somebody who puts blame or anything on officials. That’s a hard job. They make a call. It is what it is. There were multiple other moments in that game to take care of business, and I think that, you know, we were close. We could have won that game without the officials making … without that call being the determining factor.”

Eagles Coach Nick Sirianni echoed Kelce: “I know it always appears to be one call,” he told reporters, “… but that’s not what it is.”

Former NFL wide receiver Donté Stallworth tweeted that people “criticizing the refs for that holding penalty [and] saying ‘you can’t make that call at that point in the game’ lol. when are they supposed to call it — after the game? just [because] it was bad timing for an Eagles penalty doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call it. it was clearly* a penalty.”

ESPN analyst Marcus Spears, a former NFL defensive end, tweeted: “Let me be clear it’s the Right call and Ref shouldn’t get killed for it ! It’s just the competitor in me that wanted the game to play out without a call!! That’s why I didn’t say it was the wrong call ! I said you don’t call that in that moment. But hey it’s over now.”

ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback, replied to Spears: “You are out your dang mind if you think that’s the right call my brother. And I love you like family.” ESPN analyst and former quarterback Robert Griffin III also disagreed, tweeting, “After looking at the play, that wasn’t pass interference. Or defensive holding. That call decided the game.”

The call came days after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters in the lead-up to the game that he believes officiating has never been better. “There are over 42,000 plays in a season. Multiple infractions could occur on any play. Take that out or extrapolate that,” he said. “That’s hundreds if not millions of potential fouls. And our officials do an extraordinary job of getting those. Are there mistakes in the context of that? Yes, they are not perfect, and officiating never will be.”

Cindy Boren arrived at The Post in 2000 as an assignment editor in charge of baseball and NFL/Washington Football Team coverage. She switched to full-time writing, focusing on national sports stories and issues, when she founded The Early Lead blog in 2010.

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