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Was There Pass Interference On The Game-Deciding 4th And Goal Play? A Frame-By-Frame Breakdown

We touched on it briefly last night, but the Super-Bowl-deciding play came just past the two-minute warning, San Francisco trailing 34-29 and facing a 4th and goal from the five-yard line. Colin Kaepernick, facing immense pressure in his face, threw the ball up for grabs towards San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree and Baltimore’s Jimmy Smith in the right corner of the end zone. Then, controversy.

Jim Harbaugh begged for a defensive holding call, but didn’t get one. So now the all-important question is, did the refs get it right? Before we delve into that answer, it’s important to understand the subtle distinctions between defensive holding, illegal contact and defensive pass interference. A defensive player is allowed to maintain continuous contact to impede an eligible receiver’s progress up to five yards from the line of scrimmage. Any impeding contact beyond that point is deemed “illegal contact” if the ball has yet to be thrown, and the offensive team is awarded five yards and an automatic first down. “Defensive holding,” when occurring between an eligible receiver and a defensive back, is essentially a form of illegal contact, though it has wider applications to all defenders which are not germane to this discussion. Anyway, the portion of the definition that applies here is as follows:

“A defensive player may not tackle or hold an opponent other than a runner. Otherwise, he may use his hands, arms, or body only:

(a) To defend or protect himself against an obstructing opponent.

Exception: An eligible receiver is considered to be an obstructing opponent ONLY to a point five yards beyond the line of scrimmage unless the player who receives the snap clearly demonstrates no further intention to pass the ball. Within this five-yard zone, a defensive player may chuck an eligible player in front of him. A defensive player is allowed to maintain continuous and unbroken contact within the five-yard zone until a point when the receiver is even with the defender. The defensive player cannot use his hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an eligible receiver in a manner that restricts movement as the play develops. Beyond this five-yard limitation, a defender may use his hands or arms ONLY to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver. In such reaction, the defender may not contact a receiver who attempts to take a path to evade him.”

And that brings us to this screenshot of the play, in which Jimmy Smith is clearly grabbing Michael Crabtree’s jersey and obstructing his path beyond five yards. Remember, the ball was snapped from the five yard line, and the contact is two yards into the end zone – seven yards from the line of scrimmage:

Ah, but you may have remembered that the ball is in the air. Defensive holding and illegal contact are no longer eligible penalties once the quarterback throws the ball.

The penalties are folded into defensive pass interference, which carries the following definition:

“Actions that constitute defensive pass interference include but are not limited to:

(a) Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver’s opportunity to make the catch.

(b) Playing through the back of a receiver in an attempt to make a play on the ball.

(c) Grabbing a receiver’s arm(s) in such a manner that restricts his opportunity to catch a pass.

(d) Extending an arm across the body of a receiver thus restricting his ability to catch a pass, regardless of whether the defender is playing the ball.

(e) Cutting off the path of a receiver by making contact with him without playing the ball.

(f) Hooking a receiver in an attempt to get to the ball in such a manner that it causes the receiver’s body to turn prior to the ball arriving.”

Really, take your pick here. Jimmy Smith commits four out of six possible violations. And so without question, he should have been called for defensive pass interference.


There is an exception to the rule: pass interference fouls are rendered moot if the ball is deemed uncatchable. Though Kaepernick overthrows both Smith and Crabtree, it is hardly out of the realm of possibility that either player could have caught the ball sans interference.

Now, let’s flip the camera around. Here we see Michael Crabtree retaliating by raking his hand across Jimmy Smith’s helmet and shoving him aside. This, by definition, is offensive pass interference.

“Actions that constitute offensive pass interference include but are not limited to:

(a) Blocking downfield by an offensive player prior to the ball being touched.

(b) Initiating contact with a defender by shoving or pushing off thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass.

See here:

The wording of the rule does give Crabtree some leeway: because Smith initiated the contact, Crabtree does have the right to wring himself free, within reason. However, the reason why it does not apply here is because Crabtree initiates new contact – at Jimmy Smith’s head – and therefore is guilty of offensive pass interference.

Now let’s watch it all in slow motion:

So now we’re left with two identical fouls: the first is defensive pass interference, which is an automatic first down and places the ball at the one-yard line because it occurred in the end zone. The second is offensive pass interference, a 10-yard penalty and replay of down. Except in the NFL, neither penalty yardage nor down infraction is tallied consecutively – penalties by both teams generally offset, regardless of yardage, and the down is replayed (there are a few exceptions, none of which apply here).

“If there is a double foul (3-11-2-c) without a change of possession, the penalties are offset and the down is replayed at the previous spot. If it was a scrimmage down, the number of the next down and the necessary line is the same as for the down for which the new one is substituted.”

That Jimmy Smith committed the first penalty, and therefore instigated the second, is irrelevant. But more crucial to the game’s outcome is something that Phil Simms commented on during the broadcast: because both players committed fouls, it was the correct move by the official to keep his flag holstered. This, of course, is more of a traditional sentiment than anything else. It is also a partial extension of the incidental contact rule:

“Incidental contact by a defender’s hands, arms, or body when both players are competing for the ball, or neither player is looking for the ball. If there is any question whether contact is incidental, the ruling shall be no interference.”

But as you see, this contact was hardly incidental. This had more to do with nobody wanting officials to decide late-game plays, so better to keep the flags at bay than fling them around like usual. Of course, the NFL has no rule permitting such behavior – infractions are supposed to be flagged regardless of context. But that’s not what happened here. Both players were disadvantaged from making a play on the ball because of each other’s conduct. But no foul was called. And this is crucial, and where San Francisco 49ers fans, and Jim Harbaugh, could have a gripe: the dual penalties, as explained per NFL rules above, would have offset and 4th down would have been replayed – which means San Francisco would have had another opportunity to take the lead with a touchdown. But remember, this is a literal reading of technical nitpicking. In truth, how often are offensive and defensive pass interference called simulatenously? Never.

Not to mention that there’s this:

“A defensive player is allowed to maintain continuous and unbroken contact within the five-yard zone until a point when the receiver is even with the defender.”

Crabtree had not yet gained even ground (see first screenshot) with Smith, and the contact by both players was barely beyond five yards. Crabtree and Smith’s pass interference therefore fall into the same legal subset, and so no penalty should have been awarded on either side. Furthermore, remember what was stated above: both players were disadvantaged, meaning neither player gained an advantage. At this point it usually becomes a game of splitting hairs, the official deciding which player impeded the other more. And because neither foul was particularly egregious, he choose to let it all go – which, in my opinion, was the only call to make, because a singular flag on either side would have been unfairly punitive.

In situations like this, pass interference rules are just a giant mess. One player could have caught the ball had no interference (which did take place, by definition) taken place. But because there was interference on both sides, and throwing a flag for interference on both players is taboo, it was a no call. Ignoring traditional standards, the down should have been replayed due to offsetting penalties. But the referee’s judgment was in line with what we’ve seen from the NFL, historically.

Again, this is all speculative judgment, and it’s especially difficult for officials in real time under Super Bowl pressure. Anyway, we ask again: judge for yourself.

  • http://thebigaarp.tumblr.com/ Rick James


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZTD7USDJSLTFSY6TMT2P4OYBIM Johnny B

    thanks for the Frame-By-Frame Breakdown. i thought the contact was mutual and hard to say who was more at fault. Crabtree could have also been panalized even though he was trying to break away when he was grappling Smith. i noticed the baltimore blitz wasn’t picked up at all by frisco and that was the difference maker.

  • Aaron

    I think it was DPI and should have been called. I really don’t care who won the game. I’m a lifetime die hard dolphins fan (I’m sorry to say). I just hate to see a game like this. It seems that the officiating was horrible. Ravens were getting away with everything. I didn’t like this one.

  • Eric

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. I’m a niners fan myself. I can be proud that they went to the super bowl. I don’t think 1 call lost them the game, but it seems that the calls were pretty one sided. Of course I have a bias view. Its good to see that a non bias view was the same.

  • http://www.facebook.com/curtis.godfrey.54 Curtis Godfrey

    The throw could have been better which may have resulted in flag. Without a near perfect throw it becomes subjective and judgemental which results in either a call or
    no call being equally justifiable by the official. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
    I was in favor of the 49ers for the sake of one individual – Randy Moss. (from a Saints

  • quoonaess

    Had the pass been perfect/near perfect a flag would have been easily justifiable. That not being the case, the play was subjective and judgemental which means the official is
    justified regardless. I favored the 9ers for one individual – Randy Moss. Enough said…..(from a Saints fan).

  • guest

    It was pass interference. This was a bad call. I think there should have been a flag thrown. The Ravens are a dirty team. They thought ” we know the refs won’t throw a flag on the biggest play of the game. Since they won’t throw the flag, let’s foul.” I don’t put so much blame on the refs. There was a lot of pressure. I’m mostly blaming the Ravens. But the refs have to make the call sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    there was an equally questionable no call on the play that clinched the superbowl appearance for the 9ers…

    Matt Ryan threw a pass…receiver was held….no call turnover on downs…49ers win nfc championship

  • guest

    The ravens are a dirty team?! why? because they play physical and aggressive? EVERY TEAM DOES THIS! from high school on up. You must never have played a down of football in your life. If anything it should have been offsetting. YES Smith initiated LEGAL contact, then Crabtree extended his arm, pushing off. When a receiver extends their arm, that’s offensive pass interference. If you watched the entire game, you should have seen multiple plays on both sides that were questionable, but they let them play the game. People who claim the Ravens are dirty only do so because they can’t stand them, and how physical they are. I saw MULTIPLE holding calls on 9ers, some illegal blocks in the back, and a hit to Flacco when he was out of bounds. No flag. Where’s your complaints about that? Learn the game.

  • guest

    wasn’t completely one sided, 5 for 33 for san fran, 2 for 20 for bal, both of which had calls that were missed. Dickson held on the 4th at the end, among several other missed calls for them. I saw an illegal block in the back on a kickoff by san fran, and a holding call, almost as bad as dickson’s no call. It’s the superbowl, they let the guys play. Both could have had some BIG penalties in the scuffles but the refs let it go. They let the guys play football the way most of us grew up watching it. Letting them hit hard, fight for their position, something most people are crying for now.

  • guest

    Crabtree should have went to the ground to force the EASY call. Look at the entire game, there was A LOT of contact downfield by both teams they allowed to go. They allowed the teams to play ball. The way we want it to happen. The refs left it up to the teams all game. Just how football should be. Questionable no call? Absolutely. IMO, it could have went both ways. At least offset. As crabtree got to the line he extended his arm, which is when Smith grabbed him, then crabtree push smith down by the face mask. Either way, great game. It shouldn’t have come down to that. 9ers should have ran the option like they had all game. Baltimore wasn’t able to defend it in the second half inside the redzone, why get away from it then? Missed calls are part of the game. Must we step back to the Green Bay-Seattle game? Or second Green Bay-Chicago game, with missed offensive pi calls? I stand by my statement that if Crabtree went to the ground, it could have been a different ending.

  • Miked

    Guess what everyone? Crabtree said he didn’t think it was pass interference- dont you think he of all people would be the fist to jump up and down and claim this? Ball was uncatchable- so the point is moot anyway

  • nflbusted

    Bottomline, does the NFL Rule regarding pass interference actually state the exceptions, or have they been just implied overtime? Believe it is clear that the rule states a defender must be making a play on th ball, and it was apparent the defensive back had no clue where the ball was at that moment and without question made a play on the receiver. This rule is written. NFL is losing its creditibility and I guess rules are really meant to be broken even by NFL officiating crews.

  • http://www.facebook.com/josh.moran.940 Josh Moran

    The contact on the play in the Atlanta game was within the 5 yard zone prior to the ball being thrown.

  • Mr. Ref

    Murphy’s analysis is quite good until this:

    “However, the reason why it does not apply here is because Crabtree initiates new contact – at Jimmy Smith’s head – and therefore is guilty of offensive pass interference.”

    Wrong, on several counts.

    Once the defensive pass interference has been committed, the offensive player’s efforts at separating are not offensive pass interference. That is why the rule states, “Initiating contact…”. As Murphy stated, DPI and OPI are never both called.

    Crabtree’s contact with Smith’s helmet is not “new contact”; the players have been in contact since in the bump zone.

    It was defensive pass interference, plain and simple.

    The issue here is a big one which the NFL is really struggling with: the rules are enforced (or not enforced) differently near the end of playoff games. This is a travesty. In fact, pass interference (as an example) is so objective (rather than subjective) that it should be reviewable. That would go a long ways toward solving this problem. But that raises another issue–the silly review system the NFL has in place. They could learn a lot from college football on that count.

    Bottom line: The 49ers got screwed.

    But they were only there because of another questionable interference non-call in the NFC Championship game in Atlanta. In that one, the Falcons got screwed.

    The NFL is losing it’s image.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.hurk John Hurk

    i think he was screwed up on questionings from Reporters :-) DEFENDER HELD 49ers WR… NO IF NO BUTS…. RULE = RULE…. DEFENSIVE PASSINTERFERENCE…..sorry 9ers you really got SCREWED UP by REFS… it fits that the refs had there LOCKOUT during the first regl. games…. see ya @the DRAFTs guys…. go BEARS GO BEARS go

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.hurk John Hurk

    rules = rules.. if you see the last steps of WR of the 9ers… he would have easly dove for the ball at least

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.hurk John Hurk

    i noticed good Fans still call out the wrong situation note…. a PASS INTERFERENCE IS A PASSINTERFERENCE… a rule cant be turned on what ever colour the oppents have…REFS need to be REFS… the guy stands right in the same ankel as anybody from TV…. BUUUUU overpayed REF…. GO BEARS GO BEARS GO

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.hurk John Hurk

    if you guys watch a game… put your NFL IQ RULEBOOK in the playcall and VIEW ON TV … LESS PROBLEMS talken about…. CLEAR “PASSINTERFERENCE”on DEFENDER<<< —… who had no EYE on the ball all the way …BAD CALL GUYS IN BLACK AND WHITE REFS

  • woody

    “The refs left it up to the teams all game. Just how football should be.” Okay – then what do we need the refs for? If the correct thing to do is to “leave it to the teams all game” then why flag ANYTHING? Having said that, while I will always think the officials cost the 49ers at the very least another chance – and perhaps the game – with that call, it was the Niners who dug themselves into that deep a hole during the first half. Had they played ANYTHING like the team that got to the Super Bowl, it wouldn’t have come down to a situation where a single bad call cost them the game.

  • woody

    It was as good a fade pass as any thrown all season. Crabtree at the very least would’ve had a chance to haul it in with his feet inbounds.

  • sydranark

    Jimmy smith didn’t commit the “first” penalty, he commited the only penalty. The author suggests that Crabtree is responsible for a “new contact,” but even the slow-mo video proves that this is simply not true.

    The whole thing, starting from the legal holding to the illegal contact 7 yards away from the line of scrimmage, was all one continuous lock-up between them. At no point was contact broken between Smith and Crabtree, so he couldn’t have initiated a “new contact.” It is very clear that Smith was grabbing on to Crabtree well past the point where it is legal; Crabtree was only tryingto squirm his way out.

    The author does bring up a point that I think is more relevant to this issue. Infractions are indeed supposed to be flagged regardless of context. The refs did see some sort of illegal contact (regardless of who touched who first or last), yet they did not call it at all. This reflects negligence or, at the very least, intentional laziness on their part.

    Would this have decided whether or not the 49ers won the game? Who knows. What is certain is that they were robbed the opportunity to try, thanks to the refs not doing their damn job. I understand the insignificance of just 1 call in a game. But when it is a call this big, at a moment so important, it deserves some level of attention.

    I think that to many, including myself, this season will be remembered as one that both started and ended with some poor fucking officiating.

  • http://profiles.google.com/tketcher Tommy Ketcher

    What nobody seems to be discussing is that the Pass was Uncatchable. The Ball landed out of bounds. This is much ado about nothing no matter how crazy Jim goes.

  • Aaron Abdelhak

    Murphy, please explain this to your puzzled readers. The tape shows clearly without doubt that Crabtree pushed Smith to break from his grasp. You characterized that as “new contact.” Other readers have also expressed puzzlement at your assertion against the tape. I believe you made that assertion so that you could go on with your thorough and expert presentation. And that you are not going to man-up to it.

  • MCFox

    More on the Crabtree/Smith 4th and 5 no-call:

    I know this has been done to death, but I’ve re-read the NFL Rulebook
    and rewatched that play dozens of times. My conclusion is that this
    play could have been called any number of ways but would have been
    correctly called as a Double Foul (Rule 14, Sec 3, Art1) – 15 yards
    against SF for facemask push (Rule 12, Sec 2, Art 13); 5 yards against
    Balt for defensive holding (Rule 8, Sec 4, Art 6), replay 4th down from
    the Balt 20 yard line. That’s hardly a certain change in the outcome of
    the game.

    (Note: The rules also provide no Pass Interference for Incidental
    Contact or an Uncatchable Pass, so, I don’t think you can fault the
    officials for not flagging PI either way, it’s a judgement call, but
    there’s no similar judgement for Defensive Holding. The rule on
    Defensive Holding is pretty black and white — grab a jersey with both
    hands and its a hold. The rule on pushing a facemask is similarly black
    and white.)

  • Captain Obvious

    It seems to be there is some stigmata that refs should not influence the outcome of a game, so they refuse to make a call on the last play of the game. My guess is John Harbough knew this and told Smith to make the illegal play. This was a dirty, intentional, preplanned, and well executed cheating by the Ravens. The 49ers deserved a replay without interference.

  • dburns

    It looks to me like Crabtree didn’t hear the audible and was trying to block Smith until he saw the ball thrown. He definitely initiates the contact, not something you’d do if you were trying to run a fade route. Watch his second stride with his left leg off the line. It’s a tiny little crow hop. Had he been running a corner route, he would have driven that leg across and past the defender. He thought it was a running play, probably a bootleg or a sweep given that he’s trying seal Smith inside, and given that there was only one man out there left to block, either of those calls probably would have scored. Good no call, really bad audible.

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