With the score tied 35-35 and the clock still clutching two minutes in capital for the Philadelphia Eagles to expend on a response to any Kansas City score, Chiefs wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster broke outside toward the end zone on third-and-8 on the Eagles’ 15-yard line. The ball went far over his head, with a smattering of Philadelphia players celebrating what appeared to be a pivotal stop.
Then came the trifecta that has plagued the NFL all season: a flag … a significant ruling … and a social media meltdown.
Eagles cornerback James Bradberry had been called for a 4-yard defensive holding penalty, resulting in a first down for Kansas City with only 1:48 left. A chip shot field goal was virtually locked in for the Chiefs. Just like that, Philadelphia had effectively lost any chance of getting a tie or seizing a lead with a final two-minute drive. The Chiefs would capitalize on the the moment and bleed the clock down to nothing, kicking the game-deciding 27-yard field goal, leaving the Eagles with six seconds left for a hopeless heave that fell short.
It was over, with the flag cutting through Eagles social media platforms like a razor — with most of the rage being focused through the “[n]ever been better” officiating comment that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had defiantly offered at his state-of-the-league address earlier in the week.
Even the league’s Super Bowl broadcast partner chimed in, with the Fox booth reacting almost instantly in front of a massive television audience.
“You’ll see James Bradberry they’re going to say he grabbed [Smith-Schuster], he’s got his left hand on his back — I don’t know,” Greg Olsen said to Fox officiating analyst Mike Pereira during a slow-motion replay of the moment. “Mike, listen, I think on this stage, I think you let them play.”
Olsen wasn’t alone. An avalanche followed on Twitter from all corners — big, small, important and irrelevant. Both inside the Eagles fan base and out.
B.S. defensive hold …
You can’t make that call …
From one angle, the hold looked less impactful than the flag warranted. From another, well, Bradbury himself pretty much summed up the moment.
“I was hoping [the referee] would let it go, but of course, he’s a ref [and] it is a big game — and it was a hold,” Bradberry said. “So they called it.”
James Bradberry owns up to the holding penalty.
He stood at his locker for a long while and answered every question about it. pic.twitter.com/qZbbLMtOpA
— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) February 13, 2023
For a team that had fallen in the biggest moment many players on the roster will ever experience — squandering an MVP-level performance from quarterback Jalen Hurts — the Eagles reacted with nothing less than concentrated diplomacy.
“I trust them refs, man,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “The refs are going to make the call in the moment of the game and that one right there — that one stung a little bit, but we shouldn’t even have put ourself in that position.”
“Those guys have got to do that in split-second scenarios,” Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni added. “That’s what he saw and he called it.”
Ultimately, different video angles appeared to illustrate why the Eagles were right to stand down. A reverse angle of the play showed that Bradberry had a fistful of Smith-Schuster’s jersey, holding up his ability to break out of the route at a critical moment. It was that jersey tug — and not the hand on the back — that led to the flag, according to referee Carl Cheffers.
“The receiver went to the inside and he was attempting to release to the outside,” Cheffers said. “The defender grabbed the jersey with his right hand and restricted him from releasing to the outside. So, therefore, we called defensive holding. … [Smith-Schuster] went to the inside, he put a foot down to try and break to the outside. So, it was right at the break to the outside where the defender grabbed his jersey and prevented his free release to the outside.”
Fans and critics can argue if it was the right call in such a critical moment (and they will), but the full array of video showed what appeared to be a penalty by the letter of the law. The Eagles accepted it and moved on. It won’t be the most popular reflection on this game, but that doesn’t mean it’s not accurate.
As Sirianni put it, “I know it always appears to be that it’s one call that [is the difference] — that’s not what it is. Right? That’s not what it is. There’s so many plays that contribute to the end result of the game. Today, they were better than we were.”