You have to hand it to the NFL for making a concerted effort to woo back its dwindling fan base with an engaging Super Bowl.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots pushed all the right buttons for the beleaguered league.
The offensive shootout broke all sorts of records at a rate similar to a Big 12 football game, with defense only a rumor until the Eagles’ pass rush finally got to Tom Brady with the game’s only sack and forced a critical fumble in the closing minutes. That checked the box of appearing as volatile and interesting as college football.
Justin Timberlake behaved in a more kid-friendly halftime show, capping it by posing for selfies in the stands with a kid instead of creating controversy with another “wardrobe malfunction.” He even cut short his medley encore of Rock Your Body before the infamous line that had Janet Jackson partially “naked by the end of this song” in 2004.
The players didn’t choose to peacefully protest social injustice during Pink’s flu-tempered rendition of the national anthem.
But most important of all, the NFL replay review office showed masterful restraint by not overturning two touchdown catches that would have incited riots in Philadelphia instead of the routine celebratory mayhem that usually accompanies big moments in the City of Brotherly Love.
Just days after commissioner Roger Goodell said that reviewing the controversial catch rules and the criteria for overturning calls on the field would be a priority for the NFL’s competition committee this offseason, the league office pre-emptively enforced common sense in reviewing Eagles touchdown receptions in the third and fourth quarters.
Fans of the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers probably had some choice words to share as they collectively watched the Patriots not get the same benefit of doubt in the Super Bowl that they did against each of those teams in arguably the most controversial replay reversals of the regular season. The NFL’s rules and the Zapruder-like scrutiny of high-definition, slow-motion replays has infuriated fans who no longer know what constitutes a catch or possession or “clear and obvious” evidence of a mistaken call on the field.
This would have been the nuclear scenario detonating outrage that the league may never have recovered from.
The first instance came midway through the third quarter when Corey Clement caught a perfect Nick Foles pass for a 22-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone that restored Philadelphia’s 10-point lead. Clement got two feet inbounds before his toe touched the line on his third step. In real-time, it was cut and dried.
But once the automatic scoring review started, there was an argument that Clement’s grip on the ball shifted between the first and second step. It was the same argument made when Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins momentarily loosened his grip as he crossed over the pylon in October, causing the refs to turn a Jets touchdown into a Patriots touchback in one of the most ridiculous rulings of all time. A similar possession reversal took away a touchdown catch by Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin against the Patriots in December.
Sanity prevailed this time as review upheld the touchdown call, seeing as Clement clearly had full control of the catch even if the ball ever-so-slightly shifted in his grip. It was the first strike for common sense.
The second strike was even more significant. With the Eagles trailing for the first time and driving to reclaim the lead with under three minutes remaining, Foles hit tight end Zach Ertz on a slant at the 6 and Ertz took several steps before lunging and reaching over the goal line to complete the 11-yard score.
It was eerily reminiscent of the game-ending scenario in December that was interpreted differently, costing the Steelers a win over the Patriots and likely homefield advantage that reshuffled all of the AFC playoff seedings and matchups. That time review officials ruled Steelers tight end Jesse James failed to “complete the process” of the catch when he too lost the ball after lunging across the goal line.
As Sunday night’s review dragged on, it seemed like the NFL was contemplating signing its own death warrant. Finally, referee Gene Steratore announced what was obvious to everyone except NBC color analyst Cris Collinsworth: Ertz had established possession and had become a runner by taking a few steps and broke the plane of the goal line before the ball popped loose when he hit the ground.
It was absolutely the right call, but it was also the only call the NFL could have made without losing all credibility. Reversing that TD and setting up a likely field-goal try in the waning minutes on the biggest stage in American sports would have incited universal outrage and turned off even more fans.
“The city of Philadelphia would have been hot if they had overturned that,” Ertz said. “Luckily for our city, they didn’t.”
The Patriots had already ridden three absurd replay calls all the way to another Super Bowl, so aiding and abetting a sixth ring for the dynasty might have been the last straw.
The NFL picked a good time – and the best aggrieved party – to finally start mending its severed relationship with logic.