The Super Bowl officiating has generated a loud buzz of activity, much of it centered on the "no-call" of holding against the Ravens on the 4th down from the 5 yard line. From my seat, 49er fans probably have some legitimate complaints over that call along with a no-call on Ed Reed for offside on a player near the goal line in the first half, which was particularly glaring in that an offside call on the 49ers setup the first Ravens' TD.
Beyond the advantage gained or lost by either team, however, the big 4th down play summed up the entire game -- officials, whether on their own or by directives by supervisors -- kept their flags tucked away on many discretionary calls penalized during regular season games. This kind of reluctance could be seen throughout the playoffs, but especially in the Super Bowl. From the outset, post-play activities that could be penalized as personal fouls were overlooked. When these antics reached their peak with the mini fight/scrum in which at least one player had his helmet ripped off and one shoved an official (normally automatic ejections), both teams received an inconsequential offsetting penalty. Even though both teams' secondary players aggressively used their hands all game in ways normally penalized, I don't remember a single defensive holding call.
The NFL playoffs and Super Bowl in particular resembled the shift that annually occurs in the NBA between (most) regular season games and playoff games (and some bigger regular season ones). Players ratchet up the physical play, knowing that the league doesn't want the "game decided by the officials." Some analysts laud this "the them play" approach, not seeming to realize that it doesn't permit many other players to "play their game."
It's a very difficult strategic game for leagues. In pro basketball playoffs as well as in college basketball in the late 1980s and 1990s, coaches and players figured out that leagues and officials prefer not to foul out more than one or two players in a game. If a team commits 25 acts that could be whistled for a foul, maybe 20 would be called. However, if a team commits 250 punishable acts, then only 25 would be called. That's a small price for a big increase in defensive aggression. Now, NBA playoffs, particularly the deeper rounds, and NCAA games devolve into wrestling matches as ESPN's Jay Bilas, a former Duke player who enjoys defensive play, observes in this Sportstalk Chat.
The NFL faces the same issues with pass defense. As passing offenses of the 1980s and 1990s became more effective, the best NFL defenses adopted, essentially, a holding everywhere and all the time policy. The league responded with a crackdown in the early 2000s, increasing the number of holding penalties. On occasion, one can observe holding penalties on back-to-back plays during regular season games. However, the Super Bowl illustrates the difficulty of maintaining a hard line. Players step up their aggressive tactics which gives officials two choices -- call a load of holding penalties early or permit a teams to engage in tactics that are usually penalized. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS' announcing crew, seemed oblivious all night to this, with even the 4th down play with the two-handed bear hug by the Ravens' defender only drawing a "close call" comment from Simms.
Ironically, in spite of the defensive wiggle room permitted, both teams scored over 30 points. This reflects the development of offensive skills and exploitation of offense-spurring rules, particularly in the passing game. At one time a 28-6 deficit in the second half would have been a yawner but not in this era.
Also Posted at Forbes SportsMoney