Monday, February 13, 2023

Super Hold

 I guess once a year now I write about football. The last time was a little more than a year ago, when the Chargers lost to the Raiders and were eliminated from the playoffs in a strange game-ending sequence that came to be blamed on coach Brandon Staley and the boogeyman “analytics,” when the real culprit was bad run defense.

Super Bowl 57 didn’t have a moment like that. In fact, the Eagles’ success on fourth downs meant that the issue of analytical thinking in football never really came up. It’s only when a team doesn’t convert a fourth down that the topic becomes fodder for discussion.

No, what we had at the end of this game was history unlike the kind anyone had ever seen before. The Eagles had played a near-perfect game for 59 minutes, running up a 35-0 lead on the Chiefs, who were overmatched in all phases of the game. The Chiefs were driving, having gotten into the red zone, when on third down, Eagles defensive back James Bradberry tugged Juju Smith-Schuster’s jersey as the receiver went into his break, preventing Smith-Schuster from getting into his route. As Patrick Mahomes’s pass landed incomplete in the end zone, referee Carl Cheffers threw his flag and called defensive holding, giving the Chiefs a new set of downs with 1:50 to play and the Eagles down to one time out. After a series of kneeldowns, Harrison Butker came on and kicked a 38-point field goal to give the Chiefs a 38-35 lead with just seconds to play. The penalty call by Cheffers opened the door to the most important kick in football history, and could rightly be said to have cost the Eagles the game.

That’s not quite how it happened, but you would be excused if you thought so given the reaction to that play. At the point of the penalty, the Chiefs had scored 35 points, including six on a fumble recovered for a touchdown and six more set up by a punt return inside the ten-yard line. In the second half, the Chiefs had had three possessions and scored three touchdowns prior to this one. Just seconds prior, the Eagles had let the gimpy Mahomes run 26 yards straight up the middle of the field to set up the final sequence.

So no, whatever you think of the call itself, it most definitely did not cost the Eagles the game. They’d allowed 35 points, a defensive touchdown, a massive special teams play, and three straight touchdown drives. They’d blown a 13-point second-half lead. Any number of plays in the first 97% of the contest “cost them the game” more than a holding penalty did.

Where this conversation goes awry is in making the referee the central actor. The central actor was James Bradberry, who grabbed Smith-Schuster’s jersey to prevent Smith-Schuster from beating him off the line. It looked like a hold on the screen; I’d argue that the most effective way to draw a defensive holding penalty is to pull the receiver’s jersey away from his body, which is exactly what Bradberry did. After the game, Bradberry said, “It was a holding. I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide.” They did not.

It looked like a hold in the moment. The referee made a quick and decisive call. The offending player concedes he held. If we put instances of defensive holding on a scale of 1-10, this wasn’t a 1 and it wasn’t a 10. You might see a 2 where I see a 5. At first I thought it was a bad call, but the more I looked at it, the pull on the jersey just makes it easy. It interrupted Smith-Schuster’s route pretty severely. It was defensive holding de jure and de facto.

There’s an idea sports fans hold that players, not referees, should decide games, that officials should avoid making calls in high-leverage situations. It’s silly, because officials affect the game constantly throughout the contest. This idea is based on the fallacy that calling violations is the only way officials can affect the game. Officials -- hockey fans, where you at? -- can also impact a game by not calling fouls in key moments. (That doesn’t make people happy, either.) To say that Cheffers should not have called the hold is to say that he should have influenced the game, just in a way more palatable to everyone not a Chiefs fan. That’s the last thing I want from officials; I want them calling what’s in front of them without respect to the game state. They’re arbiters, not dramatists. I don’t want them making or not making calls to produce a better TV show.

The call gave the Chiefs a full set of downs inside the ten, and with the Eagles down to one timeout, allowed the Chiefs to all but run out the clock and kick a game-winning field goal. To their credit, the Eagles tried to let Jerick McKinnon walk into the end zone with about 1:40 left, which would have left them time for a tying drive. McKinnon slid down at the one-yard line to foil the strategy and set up the final sequence. The penalty changed the endgame, but 1) it didn’t decide the game and 2) not calling the penalty would have been just as impactful.

MLB is trying to fix its umpiring, if a bit too slowly for my tastes. Baseball, though, is an easier sport to officiate using technology. The calls are binary -- did the foot hit the bag before the ball hit the glove? The worst part of baseball umpiring, pitch calling, may soon give way to technology that may not be perfect but is better, certainly better for identifying the location in an imaginary box of an object moving at 95 mph and turning unpredictably. You can fix baseball officiating with automation.

I’m not sure that solution is out there for the NFL, where the decisions are judgment calls. I’m not the first person to observe that offensive holding occurs on far more plays than those on which it is called. Defensive pass interference is entirely judgment, and offensive pass interference seems to be called at random, like a DUI check on the highway, just to keep players honest. The job of an NFL referee may well exceed the ability of human eyes, even eight pairs, to do it, but unlike baseball, the shape of football just won’t lend itself to a technological solution. We’re a long way from Ref-GPT.

Whereas as a baseball fan I have demanded better because I believe better is out there, I don’t know that that is the case in the NFL. There were any number of judgment calls last night, some of which went to the replay system, and none of which any three fans agreed upon. There was a bang-bang “offsides or false start” call on the Eagles’ first drive that gave the Eagles a first down and seemed like a coin flip. The Eagles seemed to wait too long to get a play off on a number of occasions. Some of these you could handle with expanded replay, a solution no one wants, but most of them are going to come down to judgment in a way “safe or out” doesn’t. Football has too many gray areas. The NFL allowed coaches to challenge pass interference calls a couple of years ago; it was a mess and they don’t do that any more.

I think Cheffers made the right call. Even if you don’t, though, you have to admit there’s no binary here, only a range, and that within that range there is room for disagreement. MLB umpiring can be improved. NFL refereeing may just have to be accepted.