Niners Survive Official Misconduct

Jan 7, 2014 at 9:23 AM

When it was over, the story basically wrote itself. Despite playing in a frozen hellscape, the Niners simply did it again. They overcame their usual face-palmings—poor red-zone execution, even worse time-management—and won just like the Niners do. Their defense kept Aaron Rodgers in check, and Colin Kaepernick continued his Michael-Crabtree-charged resurgence, throwing and running all the way to the end, where he led a seventh game-on-the-line-in-the-fourth-quarter scoring drive, winning the game as the clock ran out.

That was the story, the official one anyway. Another dramatic victory for a franchise that seems to collect them like stamps. But as Phil Dawson's kick sailed through a Packer's arms—and, only then, through the frozen uprights—it wasn't the story that I had in mind. I mean, sure, initially, I was overcome with joyous relief. But once my breathing came back online, I've gotta say, I was only pissed off.

It's a shame, too, because the official story contains acts of heroism that deserve to be marked with a yellow highlighter. There's Kaepernick and Crabtree, of course, but there's so much more to a game like this. What about Eric Reid, the rookie who might've saved the season, one-on-one against Randall Cobb? What about Perrish Cox, who re-signed six days earlier and ended up seizing our most vulnerable position? And what about the Smiths, finally looking together again?

There's undoubtedly a great story there, but someone else will have to write it. Because all I could do was exert my frustration, over why the Packers—with their patchwork offensive line and their D that was barely professional-grade—had been able to scare us with such a close call.

All I could do was complain of the refs.

I admit that I'm late to the refs-you-suck party. After Neckgate, we discussed my policy that the officials should be treated as just another field-condition, no more impactful—and thus no more worthy of curses and taunts—than the windswept turf at Lambeau Field. If you're the better team, you overcome those conditions. If you slip on the turf, or if you're held but the flag isn't thrown, your reaction must be the same. Just get up and make the next play.

I like that position. It means you've got one less thing to worry about. Plus, you can't be accused of whining when a call goes against you, and you can't be accused of hypocrisy when a call goes against your opponent. It's just a strong, noble position.

And after Sunday, I'm rethinking it.

It's no secret that bad calls—empirically bad calls—were epidemic this season. With every week came a fresh round of league apologies and attendant hand-wringing. The Niners, of course, were serious victims—Neckgate, the fine for which was quietly rescinded, might've cost them the #1 seed—but they were hardly alone; the Steelers might've been cost the postseason. One prominent commentator dubbed 2013 "the Year of the Blown Call," and until there's an equivalent "Year of the Windswept Turf," it would seem unfair to treat those two conditions the same. Clearly, the officials are impacting the game in wildly disproportionate ways. So it's unrealistic to continue to treat them as a mild impediment to the better team's inevitable success. They're now a systemic encumbrance; and in a league with so much parity, the better team might not be better enough.

And on Sunday, the Niners almost weren't.

The officials didn't make bad calls, of course; instead they made virtually no calls at all. Granted, penalties would've extended the game, increasing the risk that thousands would die of severe hypothermia. But a job is a job, no matter the weather. One aspect of the officials' job was to announce clear fouls, and the officials simply chose to avoid it.

And the Packers took complete advantage. By now I've got no idea what Crabtree must do to draw a holding call in the end zone. (Such no-calls likely cost us eight points, not to mention last year's Super Bowl title.) And holding by the Packers' offensive line was so rampant that it would've been funny if it weren't so frustrating. (The most egregious, the hold that enabled Rodgers' latest fourth-down "miracle," likely cost us seven more.) Add those 15 points, and this game is the rout that it should've been. Instead, it's an "instant classic" that we barely escaped.

The company line—stated on the telecast and repeated by various news outlets—is that the refs were simply "letting ‘em play," to the equal benefit of both sides. And no question, the Niners wisely adjusted, increasing their own aggressiveness. But contrary to popular belief, "letting ‘em play" isn't necessarily fair to both sides. Though both are equally able to clutch and grab, a less-skilled team benefits much more. The less-skilled team can literally drag its opponent down to its level, keeping its opponent (and thus the game) close, holding out hope for a break at the end. The more-skilled team can't do the same—or it can't to the same extent, anyway—since you can't drag down what's already down.

That's precisely what happened here. The game was equal, but it wasn't fair.

Whether it's bad calls or no-calls, the officials are seriously threatening my enjoyment. As Sunday's game remained close, I couldn't stop obsessing over how many points the officials had scammed. And even when the Niners made a great play, my excitement was tempered by my constant fear that we'd finally see an unwarranted flag. And this mixed sensation—this tempered excitement—is becoming my default condition.

No, I don't think the league is fixed. And no, I don't think the league's out to get us. But I'm starting to worry about the officials more than I worry about our opponent. Especially after these last two years—each of which ended with highly questionable officiating—I almost literally can't stand the thought that the refs might dash our Super Bowl hopes. (Or dash our Super Bowl hopes again.) Yet that's the thought that I can't escape.

Hence the article you're reading now. This article should be about Kaepernick's evolving (though still imperfect) genius, Crabtree's incredible (though still progressing) recovery, and our D's continued ownership of one of the greatest QBs in the game. Instead it's about a crew of part-time league-employees, who nearly took it all away.

Only nearly, though, thank goodness. The Niners survive. Now we set our sights on the Panthers. They're a strong opponent, which is unfortunate. But what's more unfortunate is that they're not necessarily our only opponent.

Here's hoping the Niners can beat them both.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Phil M.
    The video as a 49ers fan was hard to swallow. I screamed at the TV for the blown calls. How could none of them be reviewable. Then to see the issues I didn't see, makes you wonder. Do I think it is done on purpose, No. It is a big money sport, the integrity of the game and referees is very important. Something needs to be done to fix it. Can the NFL be happy that the NFC's top referees blew so many calls? In any other job you would be worried about being fired. The NFL needs to explain the situations that occurred, and what will prevent them in the future, not acknowledge a conspiracy.
    Feb 7, 2014 at 8:06 PM
  • jamesbond
    "Letting them play" is the same thing as "letting them cheat". It is as simple as that. Rules are there for a reason and it is the JOB of the officials to enforce them.
    Feb 6, 2014 at 12:10 AM
  • mnm
    I enjoyed the 49ers-Packers game but I do agree that the officiating in that game and the last couple of years has sucked. I thought the replacement refs were bad but sometimes I think they are still on the field. If the NFL can't find people that can do an even adequate job then maybe more of the officiating needs to be done by replay. The league office needs to quit apologizing for the mistakes and start correcting them.
    Jan 12, 2014 at 6:40 AM
  • Lucky Phil
    Eric, Thank you for the comment. I would like to explain what I would like JH to do before a game. Because like you I don't appreciate kiss-asses in football or in my life. I like to be direct and respectful with people I speak with. Here's what I would like JH to say to the officials before the game. JH says "Before we start the game I wanted to talk with you guys (refs). I wanted to apologize for my behavior before the game begins. This is a big game for us and I know my adrenaline and enthusiasm will cause me to act in a more demonstrative and unruly manner than I normally would. I want to apologize in advance if anything I yell, scream, or spit, when the spittle flies, is offensive or rude. None of my actions during a game is meant to offend or embarrass the officials. I have the utmost respect for the job you do." Eric, I believe JH is a very respectful, humble, and intelligent person; however, his behavior on the sidelines is out of control and does not represent him or serve the team to the best of his ability.
    Jan 9, 2014 at 4:44 PM
  • Terry B.
    Et tu, Kaplan?
    Jan 9, 2014 at 12:12 PM
  • Eric
    Mr. Kaplan, I felt EXACTLY the way you felt when you wrote this article. Thank you for publishing it as I was beginning to wonder whether I was overreacting. Lucky Phil, your points are not well taken. In fact, they are utterly ridiculous; have you forgotten what it was like before Harbaugh? You blame Jim for the team being penalized? This is not a league built for kiss-asses or insecure men who are rubbed the wrong way by a coach who knows what the hell he is doing. The zebras who don't have the skill or the spine to make the tough calls on the big stage must GTFO. Anyway, Mr. Kaplan, I think Goodell ought to evaluate this issue and give it as much importance as player safety. I hope he's reading.
    Jan 8, 2014 at 9:12 PM
  • Darrell G
    Here's hoping if we have to go to Seattle that we don't draw that crew. Seattle's DBs already get away with murder.
    Jan 8, 2014 at 7:56 AM
  • Lucky Phil
    Jeff, I understand what you're saying. I felt this way earlier in the year but I was so pissed off with our offense I really didn't care we were getting ripped a new one with the officials. But I know why, at least I'm pretty sure I know why. Anyone that watches Niner games on a regular basis (we all do here) knows JH goes mental on the sidelines. And I am sure those officials hate his guts. Most of the head coaches in this league know how to work the refs. They talk before the game. I've seen Sean Payton, Andy Reid, etc. schmooze with the refs because they know gametime they all go Apesh!t. I know JH doesn't do this, it's not in his DNA. I have seen how ridiculously he acts with the media in this town, and I know he is not going out of his way to talk to anyone outside the team. I hope he realizes the team is being penalized for his behavior. Enjoy the game Sunday!
    Jan 7, 2014 at 9:34 PM
  • Craig
    I feel your pain. People say that a team should play well enough that the officials don't matter, but the last 2 Super Bowl champs needed favorable calls against the Niners to beat them. I know eventually a Jim Harbaugh squad will lose by more than a few points in a playoff game and as much as that will suck, at least the 49ers may finally get beat by a better team. I just don't like the saying, "You can't call that in the playoffs/Super Bowl". If it's a penalty in the first quarter of the first game of preseason then it's a penalty on the last drive of the Super Bowl. I often see something wrong with the officials against the Niners...but I'm a die-hard fan. When I hear all the non-Niner fans complaining (as it is now), then I know it's gone too far. Although it's funny to hear Packer and Seahawk fans saying that the Niners got calls in the last two games against SF. Either way great writing, keep it up.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 1:45 PM
  • MShep
    I'm sure the league wants the "Saintly" Brees to beat the "druggy" Seahawks so I expect to see the "Legion of Boom" brought down by flags this weekend. Although it's not right in any way, shape, or form it's good for the 9'ers! :)
    Jan 7, 2014 at 1:41 PM
  • Jonquie
    As I watched the game, I had the same feeling and every time the Niners scored I kept saying that there should be more points on the board. It was so obvious that calls were not being made. But the one thing I also know is that is the kind of atmosphere you will be in if you're playing at Lambeau Field. I take nothing away from the Packers, they're an awesome team offensively, but you have to wonder if they're that great at home due to the calls I always see come from Lambeau Field. Well, overall my Niners laid it all out on the line and came away with the win. Furthermore, I do believe that a lot of other players don't get noticed enough. Reid is one of my favorite players on the team, he makes big plays that put us in great positions and set us up for the win. All in all I love my Niners and can't wait for next week!
    Jan 7, 2014 at 12:50 PM
  • Mike
    When was the last time the Niners won back to back games by scoring with no time left? Ever?
    Jan 7, 2014 at 12:19 PM
  • Pokerjohn
    Love the article. I'm very excited for the win and excited that Kap (even with mistakes) led a 4th qtr game-winning drive in the playoffs. That's the stuff champs are made of. Unfortunately the officiating has sunk my excitement too. Seriously, that neckgate call could cost us the season. If we get by the refs and Carolina we have to play in Seattle (most likely), we should have the one seed and be playing at home. With the less-than-high-school-level clock management I don't see how we beat Seattle. That might be the one game where we NEED 2 timeouts in the fourth qtr but don't have them because Harbaugh refuses to fix the issue. I am more scared of the officials in Carolina than I am of the Panthers. When crabs gets tackled in the end zone and doesn't get a flag we have to settle for 3. That plus the fact that we will be out of timeouts shortly after halftime, that may be the difference in this game.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 11:57 AM
  • Dan Reeder
    I feel your frustrations. Watching the 49ers-Packers Wild Card game brought back nightmares of previous games this season when the 49ers got hosed by the officials. Whether it's no calls, or bad calls, they still hurt. I firmly believe the 49ers would be 14-2 if the officials had made the correct calls in key games earlier in the season. I can't tell you how many times I saw Aldon Smith being held by opposing offensive linemen, and it was very evident during this last game, as well as the first game against the Packers at the beginning of the season. I know officials are human, and not always perfect, but they have to make the call when it is clear. After last year's Super Bowl, I don't want our championship hopes to come down to bad officiating.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 10:56 AM
  • Michael in Reno
    I'll add my agreement (in spades) with the article. VERY well stated! It's tough for me to accept any argument that "it's unfair both ways, so it balances out", both because of the reasons stated by the writer and because the raw numbers of bad calls each way don't seem even. Beyond that, it seems to me that the bad calls or no-calls against the Niners' interests look to come at the worst times. How can Ray McDonald almost get "choked out" by a hold right in front of the ref and it not get called? Suspicious....
    Jan 7, 2014 at 10:45 AM
  • mtascavage
    Completely right on. I counted about 4-5 calls that should have went the Packers' way (interference on Jordy downfield, bad call on their LT while Aldon had his facemask, the clock hit 0 on the 2nd Crabtree near-TD, and probably a couple others). But the amount of times the Packers were downright mugging us was near 20. Deitrich-Smith and Bakhtiari completely dragged our line down and prevented sacks. Davon House cost us at least 4 points, probably 8. He also mugged Vernon on a deep ball. The problem is, and I live in WI, if you try to explain this, Packer fans (as well as most other NFL fans) will just say you're whining and that there were calls on both teams. Partially true, but completely disproportionate in Green Bay's favor and they could have stolen this had Micah Hyde caught that interception on the last drive. The officiating makes me sick and not only should we have home field this year, they screwed us bad in the Super Bowl last year.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 10:41 AM
  • 9er Fanatic
    Nailed it. Echoed my feelings, but not my wife's, as she had to put up with me :) I don't understand why Hochuli and Triplett got playoff gigs, when both lead officials had rather unforgettable and costly moments this year. Camera don't lie.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 10:28 AM
  • Big Al
    Great article. The refs have had a very bad season and some of it looks suspiciously like favoritism.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 10:04 AM
  • Jim
    I couldn't agree more - the refs are seriously impacting the games with no calls or blown calls and are diminishing my enjoyment of watching football.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 9:56 AM
  • luluc.
    Consumers didn't like the taste of New Coke so they rejected it, we need to stop buying the NFL product for awhile so the manufacturer gets the message.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 9:50 AM
  • Hank
    I agree that teams with more skills suffer more when rules are not observed. The "let 'em play, don't be a whiner" is a misguided view for a 49er fan.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 9:42 AM

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