The Defender: Super Bowl 57

We, as a people, were spoiled on Sunday. We got an absolutely great game in Super Bowl 57, proving that when the two best teams in the league actually meet in the biggest game of the year, things usually end up being pretty darn fun.

Unfortunately, a lot of the greatness of that game and the players in it has been overshadowed by a particular play. If you actually watched the game (and didn’t just tune in for the incredible halftime performance by Rihanna and then dip) then I’m sure you know what play I’m talking about.

The play in question is a defensive holding penalty called on Eagles’ cornerback James Bradberry while he was in coverage on the Chiefs’ JuJu Smith-Schuster. The penalty gave the Chiefs a first down at the Eagles’ 11-yard-line with 1:54 left in a 35-35 game. Kansas City ran the clock down and kicked a go-ahead field goal with eight seconds left that would ultimately give it the 38-35 victory.

And obviously, there is a lot of discourse about that penalty in question. The sentiment online (or at least on my Twitter timeline) is that the refs ruined an all-time Super Bowl with that call and that it was a travesty and that the league should be ashamed of what happened.

Yes, in a game where nine penalties were called for a grand total of 47 yards, the refs are still the bad guys. The only thing separating the refs from Darth Vader at this point is that the refs also have some white in their uniform (and they can’t force choke people).

I understand why everybody is hyperfocused on that one penalty call. It was a controversial call in a very high-leverage moment. Those types of decisions always have a huge impact on the game. But as The Defender, I’m here to explain why the refs didn’t actually cost the Eagles a Super Bowl win, despite what any Philly fan will tell you.

First, a little background on me. I’m a Seahawks fan. So, if you want to talk about Super Bowls that were tainted by referee ineptitude, you won’t get much sympathy from me. I was only seven years old when the Seahawks lost Super Bowl 40 to the Steelers but it’s the first sporting event that I can remember and I think that is because it was such a horrifying and traumatic event in my life.

I include all that to say that Super Bowl 57 is nowhere near what happened in that game. You want to know the number one reason why I say that? Because Bradberry admitted after the game that he committed a penalty.

“It was a holding. I tugged on his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide,” Bradberry said.

If the player who committed the supposed ‘terrible’ holding penalty admits that was exactly what he was doing, I think it’s safe to say the call isn’t necessarily that bad.

Bradberry’s explanation does make sense. I’ll do some reading between the lines here to further explain what he was saying. I believe on that play Bradberry realized that he got beat by Smith-Schuster’s move to the outside and did the only thing left to do in order to prevent a probable touchdown: grab him. It’s subtle, but it does happen.

Is it the most egregious example of defensive holding we’ve seen? No, of course not. Is it even the most egregious example of defensive holding in Sunday’s game? No, probably not. But penalties aren’t based on other plays. Each play is an individual event and if a referee deems that a player commits a penalty, and that player admits that is what he was doing, then a penalty is called.

It’s also not fair to say that that particular penalty is what decided the entire game. Did it impact the outcome? Of course. But so did whether or not the opening kickoff was returned. Each play impacts the end result of the game, some obviously more than others, though.

That’s to say, there were 125 combined plays in the Super Bowl. Plenty of other things that happened in that game contributed to the Eagles’ loss. Yes, it’s possible that without that holding call the Eagles win the game. It’s also possible that they don’t win the game even without the penalty. And it’s also possible that they wouldn’t have even been in that position if they played differently on the other 124 plays.

For example, the Chiefs scored on every single drive they had in the second half. They scored three touchdowns and one field goal (which probably would have been another touchdown if they didn’t drain the clock and play for the field goal).

I’m not an expert on football but I think forcing a punt in the second half would have been a good way to improve your chances of winning the game. So would forcing a turnover, which the Eagles didn’t do, ultimately losing the turnover battle one to zero.

I think the main thing that is being overlooked in favor of the controversial penalty is the fact that the Eagles were essentially unsuccessful at doing the main things they needed to do to win the game.

The most obvious one was the lack of a pass rush, which had been Philadelphia’s calling card all year. The Eagles were borderline historic with their pass rush, with Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham, and Javon Hargrave all recording double-digit sacks in the regular season. Yet on Sunday, the Philly defensive line failed to record a single sack. That was supposed to be where they thrived, especially against a quarterback that was visibly hampered by a preexisting ankle injury.

Another thing that undoubtedly had to be a critical focus for the Eagles was defending Travis Kelce, the star tight end who is one of the best players in the entire league. And while covering Kelce is much easier said than done, the Eagles had two weeks to figure out a way to at least slow him down. He finished with six receptions on eight targets for 81 yards and a touchdown. It was a pretty typical day for him, but it was enough to get the victory.

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles actually struggled to find success on the ground, which was thought to be their biggest advantage coming into the game. The overall rushing numbers are inflated by Jalen Hurts’s 70 yards, but he was the only one to really do much of anything (and he had an absolutely incredible game and should not get any blame for the loss). The Eagles’ three running backs, including Pro-Bowler Miles Sanders, combined for 45 yards on 17 carries, which is an average of 2.6 yards per carry.

I don’t bring up all this just to pile on the Eagles after what must already be an emotionally frustrating game. I bring it up to illustrate the fact that there were other factors that contributed to the loss, not just one penalty.

Hopefully, we can all take a step back once we are further removed from the game and our heads are much clearer and appreciate this game for what it was. It was an amazing game. It was the third-highest scoring Super Bowl of all time and it came down to nearly the final seconds. Don’t let one penalty ruin it for you, especially when it was the right call.