MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As the Kansas City Chiefs' points stacked up late and they began to pull away from the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, the NFL avoided the type of officiating scrutiny that shrouded last year's postseason.
The pass interference against 49ers tight end George Kittle on a monster chunk play at the end of the first half was relegated to a shrugging gripe. The Chiefs jumping offsides in the middle of the fourth quarter seemed less relevant. Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo seemingly taking a helmet-to-helmet hit on the same play faded. Even the crucial third-and-goal, go-ahead late touchdown by Chiefs running back Damien Williams — which was reviewed and upheld by officials — became an afterthought.
When it was all over, the 49ers' brief survey of the damage in their 31-20 loss told them that most of what happened Sunday night was self-inflicted. Whether it was blown coverages, inopportune turnovers or simply missing game-changing opportunities (see: Garoppolo overthrowing Emmanuel Sanders late in the game), San Francisco's deflated locker room had simply accepted the Super Bowl loss for what it was. Leading 20-10, the 49ers didn't close the way they needed or wanted.
Of course, that doesn't mean there won't be haunting moments from the fan base, which appeared as a slow burn on social media long after the loss. A special and specific brand of vitriol that is often the deepest cut in a Super Bowl loss, coming in the form of officiating mistakes that will leave some lasting scars for the 49ers faithful. Especially if this is a franchise that can't get over the championship hump in the next few seasons.
With that in mind, here are the four biggest calls that rankled San Francisco fans — along with a thought about whether they were the mistakes they appeared to be:
Tight end George Kittle is flagged for pass interference before halftime
The NFL jumped all over this one with its @NFLofficiating Twitter account, supporting a call that Kittle pushed off in the process of catching a 41-yard pass that would have put San Francisco into scoring position late in the second quarter. In point of fact, the league's video did highlight Kittle extending his arm at least twice to gain an advantage on safety Daniel Sorensen prior to making the catch.
The video doesn't point out that Sorensen also initiated contact on the play and, at one point, appeared to grab Kittle while the ball was in the air.
This was a prototypical officiating judgment call that went bad for the 49ers. But there was evidence to back it up, not to mention the reality that Kittle didn't have to push off to catch the perfectly thrown ball.
For their part, the 49ers didn't raise a stink about it afterward, with Niners coach Kyle Shanahan calling the play "unfortunate" but admitting he didn't see it clearly from his sideline vantage. Kittle merely added, "The ref makes a call, I live with it."
Chiefs defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon jumped offsides in the fourth quarter
On a third-and-14 play the 49ers badly needed to continue a drive and put a hammerlock on their 20-10 lead, Kpassagnon clearly jumped offsides before the 49ers had snapped the ball. A slow-motion replay even showed him throwing the brakes on for a millisecond as the shotgun snap went off. There's not much to say about it other than it was a missed call by the officials. It would have shorted the down to only third-and-9 — hardly putting San Francisco into an easily makable down and distance. Not great, but not clearly a game-altering moment, either.
Just saw this. The Chiefs most definitely jumped offsides on this play. Granted it was 3rd and 14 but you never know. pic.twitter.com/th5AXOw0Et— Kyle Seeley (@ItsKyleSeeley) February 3, 2020
49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo appears to take a late hit
On the same play as Kpassagnon jumped offsides, Garoppolo rolled to the sideline and appeared to take a late hit from cornerback Rashad Fenton. Frankly, it was the kind of play that can easily get flagged for a personal foul in today's uber-sensitive environment protecting quarterbacks. If it was someone like Tom Brady, the flag almost certainly would have been thrown — which is likely why Shanahan went ballistic on officials during the sideline scene after the hit.
Replays showed Garoppolo still had his feet inbounds when contact occurred. By the basis of the rules, he was still eligible to be hit, even if it was an exceedingly foolish risk with the 49ers facing third-and-14. Could it have gone the 49ers' way and changed the complexion of the game with San Francisco leading 20-10? Absolutely. But it didn't, and the film shows why it wasn't an automatic flag.
Chiefs running back Damien Williams steps out of bounds as he breaks the goal line
This was another one where the NFL saw ample reason to scramble the @NFLOfficiating Twitter account, given that it was a massively important moment in the game, putting Kansas City ahead 24-20. On the play, it appeared 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman got just enough of Williams to push him out of bounds just as he was reaching the ball across the goal line. Williams' right foot definitely contacted the sideline, but it was virtually simultaneous to him breaking the plane for the touchdown.
Officials said there wasn't enough visual evidence to overturn the score, and the league jumped behind the call on Twitter as well. There's no question overturning the touchdown would have set up a stomach-turning scenario for the Chiefs — with Andy Reid having to decide to go for a fourth-and-goal, go-ahead touchdown, or kicking an easy field goal for a 20-20 tie. The call took that drama off the menu, leaving 49ers fans with another agonizing call replaying in their heads for eternity.
In totality, the four moments will give 49ers fans plenty to chew on when they look back and remember the disappointment of this game. But the final 10-point deficit certainly took some of the edge off — not to mention other breakdowns that had nothing to do with officiating. Busted coverages against Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill will live in infamy, as will some time management questions and simply not being able to get to Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in vital moments late in the fourth quarter.
None of that means San Francisco fans will forgive the officiating in Super Bowl LIV. But like the 49ers Sunday night, there will long be enough blame to go around in this one.
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