This could have been one of the best Super Bowls of all time. Maybe the best.
A tense game had been trending that way for hours, with two very good, very evenly matched teams headed toward a classic photo finish.
Instead, a referee decided for everyone.
The third-down defensive holding call against cornerback James Bradberry of the Philadelphia Eagles — which handed the Kansas City Chiefs a 38-35 victory by way of running the clock and kicking a chip-shot field goal after deliberately not scoring a touchdown — was the type of light contact that could be called on any play. Defensive holding is an automatic first down, and that first down decided the game.
It’s better to miss one than to throw that flag in so critical a moment. You’d better be sure the player’s actions impacted the game unfairly, and it would appear that this didn’t. The contact was minimal. The pass was overthrown. Given how a physical game had been loosely officiated to that point, it felt arbitrary.
And in the circumstances, that was a real shame. It left me and other neutral observers feeling as Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard expressed via Twitter at the time: “That call just ruined the entire game for me.”
That call just ruined the entire game for me..
— Kevin Byard (@KevinByard) February 13, 2023
Officiating is a troubling NFL trend
Look, I’m not one to criticize referees. I’ve never liked doing that. I respect how difficult a job this can be, and if we’re comparing sports, I’ve held back comments far more often over the years with college basketball than football. Plus, the NFL has had its share of infamous officiating mishaps over the years.
But this season’s officiating has collectively been the worst I can remember in the NFL.
I’m not just talking about the AFC title game or endless debates over “What is a catch?” or, worst of all, these recent ridiculous standards for roughing-the-passer calls.
Seriously, if you haven’t, go watch the “roughing the passer” call against the Atlanta Falcons’ Grady Jarrett earlier this season for daring to tackle Tom Brady. It was the worst penalty I’ve ever seen called in an NFL game, in part because of the timing. It erroneously handed Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers a victory in a divisional game that was very much up for grabs at that point.
The roughing the passer call after the Falcons’ Grady Jarrett hit the Bucs’ Tom Brady, and the roasting of it from Fox’s Daryl Johnston. pic.twitter.com/3ba6PCdrHm
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) October 9, 2022
And the NFL’s response?
The biggest problem here is the NFL hasn’t been taking accountability for a growing problem that — perhaps fittingly — ended up spoiling the biggest event in American sports Sunday night, making it impossible to ignore.
I go back to last week, when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell shrugged off complaints about officiating by saying, “I don’t think it’s ever been better,” as if that was going to convince anyone.
That’s fine if Goodell wants to support his referees publicly, but he’d better take steps privately to support and improve the product. In an era in which NFL teams keep tanking for draft picks and sports betting has become a major, legal industry across the country, these types of pivotal calls — ticky-tack ones that decide games — are only going to get more scrutiny and feed conspiracy theorists. Any sport, even pro football, can be damaged by doubts about legitimacy.
That’s something that should greatly concern the NFL.
But I’m not sure it is concerned.
Hey, if nothing else, the gripes about officiating Sunday night ended up overshadowing valid complaints about players slipping all over the field. The shoddy playing surface in Arizona was embarrassing for a Super Bowl.
The NFL really has put together a wonderful product with the players and teams.
Sad that the primary takeaway from a good Super Bowl that wasn’t as great as it should have been was that the league needs to step up its game, too.
Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at email@example.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.