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Two Minor Super Bowl Thoughts

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 …

We might as well take a couple of minutes to look at those two minor moments.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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*.

*But you put on a pair of shoes when you walk into the New York Public Library, fella.” 

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.

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42 Responses to Two Minor Super Bowl Thoughts

  1. Dan says:

    I’m not sure the penalty for the hold would have been a safety… or, at least, *just* a safety.

    The NFL has a rule, 12-3-3, for palpably unfair acts. I’ve written about this recently (see ), and there are a handful of examples where the things like this have come into play.

    I wonder what would have happened if, say, there were only seven seconds left on the clock and the offensive line, as you said, just bear hugged whomever however. Last night, that tactic took eight seconds off the clock (of 12 remaining); had there been only seven seconds left, the game would have ended — which seems palpably unfair to me. I mean, you shouldn’t be able to abuse the rules such that you get a penalty which *benefits* you.

    I’d not be surprised, then, if the refs awarded the 49ers the safety *and* put all seven seconds (in my hypothetical) back on the clock.

    • CursoryComb says:

      Little late to this article but it’s been rough trying to find anyone talking about it.

      A penalty on a play before a kick, the penalty can be enforced on that kick. Punting from the 10 yard line instead of the 20 would definitely constitute a better % shot of a fair catch free kick.

    • Ken says:

      If I remember right though, the holding was not called (and should have been…FAST) which would have saved some time TOO. The time could have been a factor, I think.

  2. Mark says:

    Wow, Joe, thanks for clearing that up… I don’t know if it was Dickson, but I was astonished to see one Raven with both arms around a 49er’s waist. Couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t called….

    At the minimum that rule needs to change so that the clock is reset to the original time, or has time added — they way they run off extra time for certain penalties.

  3. Mark says:

    Oh, and also — I think Culliver’s probably the goat, if you need one, but if the Niners had pulled it off, Lewis would have been an excellent candidate. And I don’t believe Nantz/Simms did much to point *that* out, either.

  4. Quinton says:

    THANK YOU for noticing the bear hugging as well. I thought I was crazy when I saw that and the announcers didn’t even mention it! Proposed rule: If there is a penalty against the team losing in the last minute of the game, the losing team should get the option of redoing the down with the initial time on the game clock as before. That or something like a 10 second addition.

  5. DMtShooter says:

    Kaepernick also took a timeout to avoid a 5-yard delay call in the third quarter. If I were coaching a team, any QB that spends a timeout for five yards would be on the bench with speed. Take the damned penalty instead. It’s five freaking yards.

    • Grover Jones says:

      Especially on first down.

    • halos17 says:

      OMG, someone else who sees this too! I’ve been bringing this up to my buddies on Sunday for years! It is so dumb to waste a TO on a 5-yard penalty on an early down. 3rd down becomes more of a decision depending on distance.

    • prophet says:

      To be fair, Harbaugh called it from the sidelines; apparently he’d seen enough of the QB giving up yardage during the playoffs, and was watching the play clock the whole time.

    • dmstorm22 says:

      Kaepernick’s timeout in the 3rd quarter wasn’t because the play clock was running down. He called it with quite a bit of time left, he just didn’t like the look.

      Harbaugh was the one who called the timeout to save 5-yards, and when it is 3rd and Goal from the 5, there is a serious debate on the merits of 5-yards vs a TO in that scenario in the end of a game.

  6. Bugaj says:

    There is no need to discuss game strategy when it has been obvious the fix was in since the 49ers Lucky Spot Bud Light commercial with improper historical timing. Too bad they miscalculated when they thought people would love Ray Lewis as the triumphant exiting hero.

  7. Ken Raining says:

    I did not notice the holding, as I was still too busy cursing Phil Simms for being too dumb to see the benefit in the Ravens taking a safety and not punting from their own end zone. But the fact that Nance and Simms totally missed the blatant holding, and that they chalked up the amount of time the Ravens were able to run off to the 49ers “not being prepared”, well, it’s just one more strike against this terrible broadcast team. I hope that the Nantz/Simms combination finally starts to get some of the criticism that the (much superior) Buck/Aikman team always seems to receive.

    • drunyon says:

      Well, you’re exactly right, Ken. I think that when you commit holding to run time off the clock, that’s what wins ball games. So I think you’re exactly right, Ken. And you know, they do what it takes to win the game.

      (Can we just agree that the Nantz/Simms team and the Buck/Aikman teams are both terrible?)

    • Brian says:

      See, to me the only good thing about Nantz is that at least he’s better than Buck.

      Everybody is better than Buck.

  8. Max says:

    “I’d not be surprised, then, if the refs awarded the 49ers the safety *and* put all seven seconds (in my hypothetical) back on the clock.”

    That’s a good point, but the added benefit to taking the safety is the free kick from the 30, instead of having to put from your end zone. I think the Ravens would still take that trade off.

    • Dan says:

      That’s likely true but not as clear.

      The free kick is from the 20. You get two plays, including the free kick return, to get three points, versus what is probably two plays (including the return) to get 5 points, but have to go 20 yards fewer and could in theory block the kick.

  9. Flax says:

    Perhaps the ultimate “the penalty for an action is not enough to discourage the action” moment in sports came in the quarterfinal round of the last World Cup, when Luis Suarez of Uruguay batted a surefire winning goal off the line with his hands, which would have been fine except that Suarez was not the keeper. This led to a Ghana penalty kick – which was missed. The game ended up going to penalties and Uruguay won. The penalty for the intentional handball was a red card for Suarez and a penalty shot for Ghana, but if Suarez doesn’t touch the ball it goes in anyway – so knocking it away illegally was simply not enough of a disincentive. Instead of a surefire goal Ghana was reduced to a good goal chance, and they missed it. In Suarez’s mind I’m sure that was worth it.

    • In that particular case, you could almost say that there was no disincentive at all for Suarez. If the ball goes in Uruguay are going to lose the game. So regardless of the negative consequences, from Suarez’s point of view, may as well stop it and hope for the best.

      The wrinkle is that the penalty for his action, the red card and the PK is a huge disincentive at almost anytime during the game except the very end. Since the game was on the verge of going to a PK shootout anyway (it didn’t just “end up” going to PKS…it was seconds away from PKs when Suarez committed the handball), the red card to Suarez became of no consequence. If he’d done that to stop Uruguay losing in regulation, and Ghana has missed the PK, Ghana would at least have had the opportunity to play 11 on 10 for the overtime periods. But since there was going to be no time left to play, Ghana was not going to get the benefit of playing with a man advantage.

      Suarez is a little $%#@ but I can’t blame him for that. Also, if Gyan just hits the PK Suarez’s handball becomes nothing more than a footnote.

    • Jaime says:

      Joe put it at 21st on this list

      I am sure he did a longer article but all the links dead end.

  10. Mark says:

    Regarding the timeout call – it seems to me you’re looking at it from two different angles, depending on which team you’re talking about.

    With the Ravens, you’re saying that 1.46 is a decent amount of time to score. Fair enough. But with the 49ers, you’re saying that an extra 14 seconds *on top of action which actually did take place* could have made all the difference.

    The latter is hindsight, and specific, and the former probability, and necessarily vague. But I don’t think an argument works wen you have to shoehorn both into the same logic loop.

  11. Mark A says:

    To me an even larger oddity than the no penalty for holding thing, is how safeties work on 4th down.

    It doesn’t make much sense that if a team is stopped behind the line on 4th down, its a turnover at that spot. But if its in the end zone, they can take a safety for the space.

    Simple rule change: If you take a safety on 4th down, defending team can choose to take the points or take the ball at the 1. You can still take the safety on 3rd down if you want room for a kick, but then you can’t use safeties to kill the clock.

    • Jeff M says:

      The NFL has several rules that produce inconsistent results.

      Another instance is where an offensive team fumbles the ball out of bounds at the 1, in which case they keep the ball. If that ball crosses the goal line and goes out of bounds, it’s a turnover and a touchback.

      In this case, out of bounds at the 1 and it would have been a turnover at that spot, but out of bounds in the end-zone and it’s a safety with a kick from the 20.

      I remember at some point in the past seeing a proposal that a “safety” should just be treated like a touchdown and be worth 6 points (in other sports, if you score on yourself, it counts the same as the offense doing it), or maybe give the option: 6 points and you kick off (like you scored a TD), or 2 points and you receive the kick

  12. Grover Jones says:

    The ultimate “penalty not being strong enough” example will pop up in about 11 months. Plenty of young people are going to avoid buying health insurance until they get sick, preferring to pay the Obamacare fine that will be well less than your average health care premium.

    This will of course drive up health care costs for the rest of us, but it’s hard to blame them.

    • Dan R says:

      These people who would take the fine over the insurance…do they currently have insurance? If not, they are treated in the emergency room, and we foot the worst version of that bill. So how, exactly, do costs go up?

    • Dan R says:

      These people who would take the fine over the insurance…do they currently have insurance? If not, they are treated in the emergency room, and we foot the worst version of that bill. So how, exactly, do costs go up?

    • KHAZAD says:

      Young people avoid buying often avoid buying health insurance anyway because they have jobs that don’t provide it-or enough money to get it elsewhere. We have been paying a higher premium for all these people for years. They often choose not to get it anyway because healthy young people don’t feel that they will need it.

      I did not have health insurance in my 20’s, (a long time ago now) and many people I knew did not either. Health insurance was for people with high paying jobs and people with families. We were not trying to take advantage of any system, it was just not a priority for us. There is still a feeling of invincibility at that age. I was lucky to make it through that time without having anything go wrong that I couldn’t pay cash for-it easily could have gone the other way, and it did for many.

      It is still like that for many of the young people today, the main difference being that parents can insure their children to age 26 now, even if they live elsewhere,which many choose to do, as the parents have a better realization of the need.

      In addition to this, there is the penalty, which will cause many people to feel they need health insurance who otherwise might not consider it. This will have those of us who have health insurance paying less for uninsured problems for people in that age group. With many more people in their 20’s having health insurance, it will bring premiums down, as that age group has less exposure than any other, which brings the average exposure down for groups as a whole.

      The problem with people who troll a non political site, repeating something they read on a politically slanted blog of some sort, is that they don’t run it past their own brain or any form of reality. You should try that next time, or better yet, stop trolling.

  13. Haha, just saw the Bookman episode the other day. Love the reference!

  14. Jeff says:

    Two things. One, Phil Simms last night was who he was. He’s nice, he’s inoffensive, and he adds nothing to the game. He doesn’t detract from it, either, of course, which does put him ahead of some broadcasters.

    Second, it’s not accurate to say that the officials “missed” all the holding. It’s clear that a decision had been made to ignore it, under the theory that “the refs shouldn’t decide the game.” The problem with that theory, of course, is that officials decide games just as much by what they decide not to call as they by what they decide to call.

    • Mark A says:

      I’d say he detracts plenty, because he’s wrong more often than he’s right, and he doesn’t acknowledge his boo-boos no matter how evident they become on replay. He usually just doubles down on the wrong. At one point last night, he managed to completely reverse what he was saying while trying to sound like it was what he was saying all along.

      Simms is the colour man. He is meant to be the subject matter expert. If he adds nothing, then the play by play guy should be there alone.

      But he is worse than adding nothing. He detracts.

    • Matt says:

      The whole game it sounded like Simms was lobbying to be Kaepernick’s agent. If San Francisco did anything well, he attributed it to Kaepernick.

      I know Simms was a QB and likes to praise the QBs, but it felt a little (lot) over the top.

  15. Mark Daniel says:

    The rules and penalties are the worst thing about the NFL. Over the last couple of years, they seemed to “let them play” in the Super Bowl. I liked that. But last night, they just went too far. The holding on that safety play was egregious. If you’re not calling that, why call anything?

    • Dan says:

      Honest question:

      Let’s say they called the penalty. Wouldn’t people go crazy? As Joe notes, the “penalty” would be “it’s a safety” which is exactly what happened, and everyone would realize the gamesmanship that just occurred.

  16. Scott says:

    My 2 cents on the talk about the officiating is this: the officiating was incredibly loose all game. The oficials basicaly acted like they were going to be fined $10,000 every time they threw a flag for any reason the entire time, so lots of stuff that would be called in a regular season game was ignored on both sides. I didn’t like it, but at the same time by the 4th quarter you couldn’t exactly call it unfair either, because the officiating was pretty even on both teams. This was nothing like the Steelers Cards Superbowl where the calls and no calls all seemed to tilt to the Steelers, I left that game disgusted. But I think even a 49ers fan has to walk away thinking that the officiating, while very bad, was basically evenly distributed all night.

  17. Jermaine says:

    I’m not sure all of the holding went on in the end zone but it doesn’t matter where it occurred. If the refs had called holding at the two yard line, the time would not be restored and the 49ers would be left with the choice of accepting the safety or letting the Ravens run another play — not really a choice at all.

  18. NMark W says:

    I’d give kudos to John Harbaugh’s special team’s coach or himself for encouraging the holding since it didn’t matter given the archaic NFL rules. Some lame-brained NFL guys would never think to tell their players how to hold on that specific down.

    Joe, you didn’t speak much of it but I agree that the 49ers play calls near the goal line were poor at best. On one of the rollouts to the right it looked like Frank Gore would have been wide open on a throwback if Kaepernick had known to look the other way and lofted the ball to Gore – Yeah, it’s a tough thing to do but Kaepernick looks plenty athletic to do it. Anyway, some kind of misdirection play should have been called. Those rollouts and the stupid short pass to Crabtree were not touchdown worthy. Also, was anyone else not surprised that the 49ers didn’t try something bizarre with those final 4 seconds? Ted Ginn receiving the ball and just running straight ahead was about as vanilla as it gets.

  19. NMark W says:

    Oh, I think Jim Nance has lost his edge in the booth. Misnaming players occasionally in as big of a game as this seems inexcuseable. He can probably still do NCAA hoops and golf since there are fewer players involved in a few seconds of action but he seems a bit lost doing football. Maybe he needs a better spotter or the headset wasn’t adequate or his general hearing is going? – I know mine is and I’m a bit older than Nance.

    Simms not seeing the benefit of the safety there at the end amazed me. All in all, it was poorly called game by Nance/Simms – but I guess it’s what we’ve come to expect.

  20. brhalbleib says:

    “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.” Joe a better basketball example for the point you are trying to make is when the trailing team is down by three and the leading team fouls on purpose to prevent a game tying 3 point shot. Or, which happened earlier this year to Mizzou, in college basketball where a team somehow has managed to only foul 3 times in the second half, so it can waste several seconds off the clock from the other’s team possession by fouling every time they try to move the ball upcourt.

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  22. Ed McDonald says:

    I really don’t understand why the 49ers didn’t run more called runs for their QB. He was tearing the Ravens defense up on scrambles. They did the same thing in the Atlanta game.

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