Refs shouldn’t have made crucial Super Bowl 2023 holding call

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One of the great mysteries of the NBA universe — the late whistle — is not a mystery at all. In covering pro basketball games for three decades, I have heard that unmistakable sound hundreds of times.

Here’s how it goes: A player gets fouled going to the basket, in the act of shooting, though the contact is borderline. The official pauses, assesses the situation and asks himself or herself the following questions:

Did a significant player commit this borderline foul, and is that significant player already in foul trouble?

Is this a critical endgame sequence that could determine the outcome of the game?

Did the shot go in the basket after the contact occurred?

That last question might be the most important one. Sometimes refs will wait to see if the shot falls before sending the shooter to the line, believing that the contact should reward the offensive team with a chance at two points — either through a made basket or a pair of free throws — but not with a chance at three points, via a counted field goal and a foul shot for good measure.

One prominent longtime NBA ref admitted this practice to me years ago, though his confession wasn’t necessary. Sports officials are human, and at times they will apply common sense over the letter of the law.

On Sunday night, the final minutes of a classic Super Bowl that saw the Chiefs and Eagles locked in mortal combat was the perfect time for the officiating crew to go that route. With 1:54 to play, the score tied at 35-all, and the Chiefs facing a third-and-8 at the Philly 15, Eagles cornerback James Bradberry briefly grabbed the jersey belonging to Chiefs receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster before Patrick Mahomes overthrew his man.

James Bradberry of the Eagles is called for holding against JuJu Smith-Schuster in Super Bowl 2023.
Getty Images

Eagles defensive back James Bradberry was flagged on an iffy holding penalty to potentially swing Super Bowl 57.
Eagles defensive back James Bradberry was flagged on an iffy holding penalty to potentially swing Super Bowl 57.

The pass landed near the back corner of the end zone, not far from the pylon, well beyond Smith-Schuster’s reach. The play should have resulted in an ultra-makeable field-goal attempt by Harrison Butker, one of the league’s most reliable kickers, and a 38-35 Chiefs lead that would’ve given the Eagles enough time to tie or win the game.

That was the way it should’ve gone down. Bradberry’s contact was illegal by the book, but too close to marginal in that situation. A penalty there gives the Chiefs a golden opportunity to run down the clock, kick the short field goal and win Super Bowl 2023 without Philly getting a credible shot at scoring.

A penalty there decides one of the greatest championship games pro football has ever staged.

And that can’t happen, not when you consider the alternative. A no-call still hands the Chiefs a good shot at taking the lead, and winning, while still giving life to the Eagles and Jalen Hurts, who had played his heart out.

The official should have taken an extra second or two before dropping the flag to consider the consequences of his ruling. A reasonable witness would’ve concluded that Smith-Schuster wouldn’t have reached the overthrow even with a free release off his plant and turn upfield, and that Butker would’ve given the Chiefs the lead despite his earlier miss from a longer distance.

A reasonable witness would’ve concluded that the penalty was far too impactful to call.

Talking to a pool reporter while the Chiefs celebrated, referee Carl Cheffers saw it differently. He maintained that there was “no debate” among his crew. He called the foul committed by Bradberry “a clear case of a jersey grab that caused restriction.”

Super Bowl
Referee Carl Cheffers performs the coin toss before the game.

Eagles fans went nuts in the stadium and on social media … of course they did. They would have loved the call if it were made against a Kansas City cornerback and assailed all those who questioned it. But Eagles fans were hardly alone here. Neutral observers the likes of Greg Olsen, the terrific Fox analyst, and LeBron James, who knows the way the officiating game is played better than anyone, used their huge platforms to criticize the ref.

“This game was too damn good for that call to dictate the outcome at the end,” James tweeted. “Damn!”

Damn right. As it turned out, the NFL caught a major break when Bradberry handled the penalty as professionally as anyone could.

“It was a holding,” the former Giants Pro Bowler said. “I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide.”

Bradberry was hopping the refs would let it slide because he knows that’s what refs sometimes do, in all sports — they let things slide. They weigh the pros and cons of making or not making a borderline call and then issue their judgment.

It’s a brutally tough job even when more than 100 million people aren’t watching. It’s a brutally tough job even when you’re making fifty bucks to officiate a Pop Warner game with three dozen parents in the stands. No right-minded observer would ever doubt that.

And yes, it’s true that the Eagles could’ve made a bunch of other plays throughout the night to avoid defeat. They might’ve lost even if Bradberry was given the benefit of the big-game doubt.

But we’ll never know that, because at the worst possible time a ref chose the letter of the law over common sense.

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