I like to think that I've been pretty magnanimous in the wake of the Patriots' crushing loss in Super Bowl XLVI. I took tons of crap on Monday morning from bandwagoning Giants fans galore, and I took it all in stride with dignity like a true disciple of Belichick should do. I congratulated those few true Giants fans who deserved a victory nod. But if you'd allow me the opportunity to briefly play the role of the sore loser and get something off my chest that's been eating away at me for over 48 hours now, I'd really appreciate it. As much as I've put on a good front the past two days, I still bleed if you cut me and I just need a chance to whine for a little bit.
We all know that Welker's drop was a big mistake, and probably a Super Bowl-costing mistake. We all know that the Patriots shouldn't have had 12 men on the field when the Giants fumbled early in the game. And we all know that Brady should have been a little more careful than to air out that interception and prematurely kill what could have very well been a Patriots scoring drive. Those were all pretty bad miscues by the Patriots that in all likelihood cost them the title.However, I can live with all of those because they were miscues by the Patriots, and if you make mistakes, then you deserve to lose. They are no different than Billy Cundiff shanking that field goal.
What's really been eating away at me happened on the very first offensive play of the game for New England. Yup, the safety. Here's another look for those of you who can stomach Super Bowl footage this soon after the fact:
When the referee announced the safety, I was beyond irate. Was he within his rights to determine that Brady intentionally grounded the ball? Yes. Should he have ever made that call? I will go to my grave believing that he should not have. Not in the Super Bowl. Not on a play like that one.
Intentional grouding at its very essence is a judgement call. It's not black and white like a receiver being in or out of bounds. You can't review it with replay. It's something that occurs within a set of defined parameters and it is up to the referee to then interpret the intent of the passer. In my opinion, in this situation, where you are going to award possession of the ball to the opposing team and put up two points on the board, IN THE SUPER BOWL, you had better have clear, undeniable evidence of the intent of the quarterback to ground the ball before you make that call. It's a major, potentially game-changing call and should not be made lightly, and I personally just don't understand how you can watch that footage and say a reversal of fortune of that magnitude was justified based on what took place.
If Justin Tuck had Brady wrapped up and was in the process of dragging him down for a legitimate safety and then Tom made a lame duck attempt to get rid of the ball, then intentional grounding absolutely should have been called. However, that didn't happen. In fact, nothing remotely close to that took place. Brady chucked the football nearly 50 yards down the field, representing plenty of time to make his throw. He had the ball released before Tuck even made contact with him. Al Michaels mentions that Tuck hit Brady "late", and, in fact, when I initially saw the flag, I thought the Patriots were going to benefit from a roughing the passer call. Yes, Brady was clearly getting rid of the ball vs. targeting a receiver, and if he was smart he would have aimed out of bounds instead of down the field, but Brady's throw was not an act of desperation in a last second attempt to avoid a safety. There was never any real danger that the Pats were going to surrender two points on that play.
And that's exactly what makes that call so maddening to me. The ref was allowed to make the call within the rules of the game, but the call went completely against the spirit of the rule, which is to prevent QB's from cheaply getting of out sacks by making misguided last-ditch throws as they are being taken down. Intentional grounding is a judgement call, and as such, the referee would have been equally as justified to let this one slide. In a game of this magnitude, in a situation like this one, you absolutely have to swallow your whistle. The penalty is simply too costly to justify enforcing it in this particular situation.
When the safety was called, I prayed that this early play would not have late-game implications. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Had the Patriots been leading 17-13 instead of 17-15, the Giants final drive may have had a very different outcome. Suddenly, a field goal would have been useless instead of game-winning. Make no bones about it, those two points changed EVERYTHING about how the final three minutes of Super Bowl XLVI played out. Would Eli Manning have led the Giants to a touchdown regardless and won the game? We will never know.
But I can't help but ask myself, what if...