A 2015 week six NFL matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers featured a rematch of Super Bowl XLVII from less than 3 years ago.
It also featured two 1-4 teams, while still current Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh’s brother Jim is no longer coach of the 49ers; and out of both original teams, only ten players again started this game on Sunday (or at least for the same side – see below), six for the gang from San Francisco, and four from Baltimore: QB Joe Flacco, guards Kelechi Osemele and Marshal Yanda, and linebacker Courney Upshaw.
The game also saw a few interesting strategy situations unfold in the fourth quarter of what was ultimately another close one. And, with barely two minutes to go, wound up being dramatically altered by an inside of five yards subjective defensive hold call, in a contest that up until that point had seen just five penalties.
First, in a key 3rd down situation and trailing by 6 from the 49ers 27, the Ravens threw a long pass with very little chance, to a well covered Kamar Aiken boxed in along the deep right sideline (after the play was over, long time quarterback and commentator Rich Gannon proclaimed the play ultimately had “no chance”), thus blowing the more important opportunity to get four new plays out of the deal, on a sort of needless “wing it and hope” type of decision.
Then, about a minute later, the Ravens – having already badly wasted timeout number one less than a minute into the second half – lost their second on a challenge to a solid 51 yard Anquan Boldin catch (also see below), that barring a likely mistake by the referees had very little chance of being overturned.
This was a timeout that, given the Ravens waste of the earlier one, effectively made the difference between them having a very realistic chance of later ultimately winning the game, versus the super long shot chance they wound up with; but for, again, want of that timeout.
Then the Ravens pulled within 6, and made a PAT versus two point conversion attempt decision that was also pretty interesting. (Link forthcoming – but here was the situation: 5:14 left, the touchdown, pending an extra point or conversion try, made the score 25-19, with more strategy implications than might at first meet the eye.)
Then, though we’ll never know, the game may have been all but decided on a measly little penalty. A penalty that but for its moment of occurrence otherwise probably went somewhat under the radar:
Leading 25-20, the 49ers faced 3rd and 7 from their own 40 yard line with 2:33 left in the game, and just the one Baltimore timeout.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick scrambled hard left. (Which, interestingly, as a right handed quarterback he nevertheless seems to like to do more than roll right – and on their prior drive, moving hard to his left, had on the dead run and with his right arm of course, thrown that essentially perfect pass to Anquan Boldin nearly 50 yards downfield for a 51 yard gain shown in the video above; hitting Boldin in his hands out in front in near perfect stride.) And he was eventually forced out of bounds for a one yard gain.
Thus, after Kaeperinick’s scramble on 3rd and 7, a 49ers punt had been upcoming. And thus at that moment the game was not only far from over, it may even have more likely belonged to the Ravens at that point: Since Joe Flacco joined the league and team in ’08, given plenty of time for a two minute type drill with the game on the line – make it and win outright, don’t make it and lose – the Ravens have won these games more than they’ve lost.
But they were called for their third penalty of the game: A somewhat subtle, within five yards, “grab” type hold by a member of their heavily depleted secondary. Here, cornerback Jimmy Smith on one time 49ers defeating Super Bowl champion Raven, and current 49er, Anquan Boldin. (Torrey Smith is yet another Raven wide receiver who was a member of that Super Bowl squad that defeated the 49ers and Kaepernick in number XLVII (47), who now plays for the 49ers – Smith even had a 76 yard TD catch against his former team in the game. Meanwhile, on the flip side of the ball, the Ravens secondary was so depleted coming in – and they lost safety Kendrick Lewis to a knee injury in the third quarter – that Shareece Wright started at corner for them, when just over a week earlier Wright had been a member of – who else – the 49ers. But not playing, he had asked to be traded or released, and gotten his wish.)
That 3rd down out of bounds scramble play and defensive hold stopped the clock at 2:26, and made it 49ers first down, at their own 45 yard line.
The Ravens could still win. (And as long of a shot which as a result they were ultimately faced with – helped as it later was by a bad 49ers punt – they wound up getting to the 49ers 35 yard line – also helped the last 5 yards by a 49ers penalty – and took two shots at the end zone: Though the 49ers likely played the final drive with more cushion than they otherwise would have had there been a little more time left.)
But at this point they were in a near Hail Mary fluke type of chance situation. A first down ends the game; and barring that, the only requirement was for San Francisco to run plays and hold onto the ball. One run will burn the Ravens last timeout. The second will take the game to the two minute warning.
The third will gake the game clock down to 1:15 or 1:16, at which point the 49ers would make a short high punt with essentially no chance of a return, and put the Ravens somewhere in between the goal and 20 yard line, and probably around the 10 or 12 on average. The Ravens would have about 70 seconds, and no timeouts, to drive between 80 and 99 yards. It’s been done on some fluke occurences, but it’s extremely rare. (The punt, despite becoming more of a rarity in such situations the last few seasons, as it is went into the end zone for a touchback, and gave the Ravens a slightly higher faint – albeit still faint – hope.)
But for a huge 49ers breakdown (though, again, with the Ravens reaching the 35 yard line the opportunity did at least arise as turned out), and what would be one of the very very rarest of last minute drives – post normal kickoff with no timeouts and only a minute to a minute and twenty seconds left – the 49ers, by virtue of that subjective penalty, all but essentially won the game (which, of course, they did 25-20). Or, but for a long shot fluke foulup – it ensured their winning a game that was otherwise completely up in the air.
This is no injustice of sport. And, frankly, in some sense it wouldn’t really be even if it was a bad penalty call. (Heck, the one being called a huge injustice for this season so far, if anything, would have been super fluke luck for the team ultimately deprived of it.)
The games are called aggressively against defensive backs – for better (fans that love high scoring and lots of “big plays” and big fantasy point scoring that the NFL’s Goodell, despite constant NFL sponsorhip on its own shows and website, says it’s not promoting), or worse (less balance between offense and defense, and less meaning to each big play and score). And bad calls, though the goal is to minimize if not eliminate them, are part of the game – and here, if minor, the penalty may have been a legitimate call as well.
When a game is that close – something that seems long forgotten if ever known (or agreed with) in the NFL, but for the record books and subsequent results, it’s not really “won” anyway in one sense at least. When it’s that close, bad bounces cause the difference betwen a win and a loss; a fluke, freak or lucky good play or bad, due to sheer randomness as much as skill and focus, cause the difference between a win and a loss.
They’re still legitimate wins and losses – particularly when combined with great play in key moments – but they often could have gone the other way. (Here the Giants lost opening day – imagine the repercussion for the tightly bunched NFC East right now, or possibly even more significantly by season end – because of a horrendous strategy decision by them; as well as, strategy snafu aside, by a third botched officiating call: A botched call that would have been a defensive hold penalty that, while legitimate, would have saved the Giants after their bad strategy decision and before they even had a chance to then add to it by playing a soft, backed way up swiss cheese style of defense – a defense with more holes even than capitalization policy on the word “swiss cheese,” and a botched call openly acknowledged by the NFL the next day. Itself one of two; but not three, acknowledged, as the NFL, but almost no one else, is apparently “clear” on what defines a catch when a receiver hits the ground “soon” after making said catch. (But apparently not if the ball is fumbled immediately beforehand – when the not yet completed catch under one set of rules, is now ruled a completed catch under another, and with sources apparently chomping at the bit to explain why.)
So actual wins count, are legitimate, and are real. But real wins in the sense of ensuring that on this day this competitor, or this team, is going to, will, and does defeat that competitor (somewhat like the week five game between the Saints and Falcons, most of the Patriots games this season, and of course, many, many others – but not including when Rex Ryan says his team is going to), or the way it turned out, unequivocally did win, regardless of calls or bounces, are a little bit different if not always as discernible.
But games are close in the NFL. And even not so close ones in the end come down to a lot of things. Sometimes those things are the subjective angle of penalty calls. And naturally here in the Ravens game it was the type of penalty that in the last few years has been increasingly tilting NFL games in favor of offenses versus defenses; and specifically passing, versus defenses.
And a game that was probably 50 50, if not at that point with a slight edge to the Ravens – with four player per set of downs, plenty of time, nothing to lose desperation on their side, and the fact that given this opportunity Flacco and the Ravens accomplish it more often than not – becomes, barring a complete 49ers defensive meltdown, essentially all but a lock for the 49ers to win.
It’s an interesting aspect that something as trivial as a minor holding call may have ultimately decided this game. And while the Ravens season looked all but over anyway, one never knows with this team. While it’s not likely in terms of their otherwise still very long shot chances of making the playoffs, that penalty may have ultimately, and very early in the season, knocked those chances down for the final count.