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The Controversial Holding Call at the End of the Super Bowl

John Moran

The infamous holding call by James Bradberry (in green) on Juju Smith-Schuster (in white).

The Kansas City Chiefs are Super Bowl champions once again, claiming the title for the second time in just four seasons. The victory was over the Philadelphia Eagles, taken in an exciting game which ended as the Chiefs scored a last-minute field goal to break the tie and avoid overtime, winning 38-35. But this article isn’t about the game as a whole, but rather on a singular, pivotal moment that may have been the deciding moment of the entire championship: the holding call on Eagles cornerback James Bradberry, which allowed the Chiefs to revive their drive and win the game.

On third and eight, at the Eagles 15-yard line, with one minute and 48 seconds left in the game, the Chiefs attempted a passing play. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes lobbed a pass far over wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster’s outstretched hands. The pass was incomplete, but the result of the play wasn’t negative for the Chiefs. A flag was thrown on the field for defensive holding, committed by Bradberry upon Smith-Schuster. The penalty for defensive holding is five yards and a first down, so this call took the Chiefs onto the Eagles ten-yard line with four downs to work with. This renewal of the Chiefs’ drive led them to kicking the tie-breaking field goal, and the call has drawn a lot of criticism.

At first glance, the hold that was called doesn’t appear to be very egregious. Bradberry was behind Smith-Schuster and tugged on the back of his jersey, but it didn’t appear to slow Smith-Schuster’s momentum by much. Bradberry removed his hand from Smith-Schuster’s back quickly, so the hold was only momentary. Also, the pass was overthrown by a large amount, leading certain fans and pundits in the NFL community to believe that it wasn’t a catchable ball even if no holding occurred.

After the game, James Bradberry was asked about the crucial play. "It was a holding. I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide," said Bradberry. Realistically, by the rulebook, it was holding. As the referees explained, “The receiver went to the inside, and he was attempting to release to the outside. The defender grabbed the jersey with his right hand and restricted him from releasing to the outside. So, therefore, we called defensive holding." The nature of Smith-Schuster’s route meant that holding would alter the flow of the play greatly, more than a holding call would on an outside route or a go route. So by the rules, the call would make sense.

But the rules aren’t always what dictate a good call. Sometimes, discretion and intuition are necessary. If an offensive hold occurs on the left side of the line when it’s a play going to the right, then the hold has almost no effect on the play. This happens in almost every play in football, and while the rules would call for a penalty, the referees use their understanding of what the important calls are to avoid these “ticky-tacky” penalties. The Smith-Schuster holding play might have been one of those penalties. It is very difficult to judge, but the ball would have been very difficult to catch even if Bradberry hadn’t laid a finger on Smith-Schuster.

Most of all, this call is a frustrating one. Referee discretion is difficult to judge, and this one really could have gone either way. The most affirming piece of evidence in favor of a holding call is Bradberry himself supporting the call, and perhaps that is all the information we need, but this call will almost certainly haunt Eagles fans for years to come.


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