There were two minor moments at the end of the weirdest Super Bowl ever that probably don’t deserve extensive analysis … but hey, it’s the Super Bowl, right? We’re getting a billion words on Ray Lewis (who, honestly, seemed to be pretty dreadful all game long), the Harbaugh brothers, the officiating, the Coca Cola race (showgirls!), the blackout, the announcing, the redemption of Flacco, the brilliant future of Kaepernick, the comments of Chris Culliver (who, honestly, was even worse in the game than Ray Lewis), the stupefying play-calling at the goal line by the 49ers, the performance of Willem Defoe as the devil in the Mercedes commercial and so on and so on, and so on …
The first came with about two and a half minutes left in the game. The 49ers had the ball first and goal from the Ravens 7. The Ravens led by five, so a touchdown obviously would give the 49ers the lead. San Francisco ran LaMichael James up the middle for two yards — one of four really dreadful play calls — and the clock was running. This is when CBS’ Phil Simms said he thought that the Ravens should take one of their three timeouts — and he was very surprised when they didn’t.
Simms seemed off all game. I’m not writing a broadcasting critique here, but I thought he seemed kind of lost. He kept saying things like, “Let me just say one thing,” and then he would say about 23 things, and it was hard to tell which one thing he was talking about. At one point, he said that he would take one thing away from this postseason, and — best I could decipher — that one thing is that “quarterbacks are throwing that football.”
But, hey, broadcasting the Super Bowl is an incredibly hard job, and I’m not second guessing Simms on his timeout call. He thought the Ravens should take a timeout before the two-minute warning so that they would have enough enough time to respond should the 49ers score the go-ahead touchdown. It wasn’t an illogical suggestion. But … it was a suggestion based entirely on the premise that the 49ers WOULD score the go-ahead touchdown.
I think that’s one of the traps of time-management in football … you manage the clock based on the worst-case scenario. If the 49ers did score the touchdown, yes, you might want a few extra seconds to score on the follow-up drive.
But here’s what happened instead: The 49ers did not score the touchdown. And if the Ravens had called that timeout and perhaps another before the two minute warning, then there would have been as many as 14 extra seconds on the clock. That would have meant:
- The Ravens probably would not have taken the safety at the end of the game. The Ravens took a safety that took the clock all the way down to four seconds. But the safety also made it a three-point game — something Baltimore could not have afforded to do if the 49ers had time to run some offensive plays.
- The 49ers might have had the chance to run one or two maybe even three, extra plays at the end of the game with a desperate chance to win the game.
In other words, as it turns out, a clock stoppage there would have significantly harmed the Ravens chances to win the game. And, assuming Baltimore did not use its timeouts, even if the 49ers HAD scored a touchdown, the Ravens still would have had 1:46 left with three timeouts — plenty of time to score. We have all watched horrified and stupefied as NFL teams have messed up their clock management. Give John Harbaugh a lot of credit. He managed the clock to perfection.
The second thing is even more minor — if that’s possible. With 12 seconds left, the Ravens (up 5) were punting the ball back to 49ers. That’s when Harbaugh called for punter Sam Koch to take the safety. Watching it live, it was astonishing how much time Koch was able to run off the clock. He stood there for a couple of ticks, waiting for a defender, any defender, then he slowly moved to his right, a little more to his right, finally he was in the corner, and then he stepped out of bounds. As mentioned, he ran off EIGHT seconds, which is a huge play. It meant the 49ers did not even have time to run a Hail Mary pass. How did the Ravens do it?
On replay, you realize it was not that complicated a play — the Ravens players essentially grabbed the 49ers defenders at every opportunity. There were several of the most flagrant holding penalties in the history of the league. They were literally BEAR HUGGING the 49ers. The fact the officials missed these holding penalties — particularly Ed Dickson’s — was kind of pitiful and, sadly, more ammo for 49ers fans who felt like the officials had missed a pretty obvious holding penalty in the end zone on San Francisco’s last offensive play.
But this is not the point: The point is that the Ravens holds in the end zone were deliberate and intentional. The penalty for a hold in the end zone is, of course, a safety. And the Ravens were taking the safety anyway. So, really, there was no penalty at all to hold — and Baltimore players did so with relish.
This is one of my favorite concepts in sports and life — the line where the penalty for an action is not enough to discourage the action. The penalty for a walk, for instance, is one base. Well, as we know, the manager of a team sometimes will gladly take that penalty to avoid facing Miguel Cabrera or Joey Votto or to go up against the other team’s pitcher with men on base. The penalty for a basketball foul is to grant that player two free shots from 15 feet out. Well, often, the coach of a losing team will have his players intentionally foul because they are behind in the game or because the player is terrible at making those free shots.
This fascinating concept of positive and negative incentives is studied by economists around the world — hey, yeah, I read “Freakonomics” — and it is simply true that people will generally respond to the incentives. For instance, a 10-cent per day fine might not be enough to get people to return their library book. But a visit from Bookman would be*.
The steroid-in-baseball incentives are a great example of all this. We all know the positive incentives of steroids — how they can lead to better performance and all the money, fame, cheers, hero-worship that goes with it.
So, if you don’t want players using steroids, you need some pretty powerful negative incentives. In the 1990s, these did not exist. There was no testing, no media pressure, no fan pressure, no peer pressure, no penalty. There was simply the knowledge that it was cheating and there might be some health repercussions down the line. Using steroids essentially came down to the players’ conscience. It wasn’t enough of a disincentive for many players.
Now, former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent is calling for slightly more rigorous negative incentive — a lifetime ban for a failed steroid test. Murray Chass writes that Vincent compared this exciting deterrent to the petty-theft policies of Saudi Arabia, where they cut off your hands, which does seem a pretty negative incentive. “Petty theft doesn’t exist with the Saudis,” Fay Vincent reportedly told Chass which is an excellent answer if the question is, “Did baseball owners entirely lose their freaking minds when they let Fay Vincent be commissioner of baseball?”
Back to the Super Bowl. The penalty for holding in the end zone is a safety — which in most circumstances is enough to discourage holding. But when the team is taking the safety anyway, there’s no negative incentive at all against it, and so the players grabbed at will. They did not allow their “conscience” to prevent them from holding. Well, of course they didn’t.