Had the Cincinnati Bengals won the Super Bowl on Sunday night, one play would have had even more of a spotlight placed on it than it already has: Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins’ touchdown reception that was made possible because he threw Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey by his facemask prior to the catch. Anyone watching the game on TV could easily see that a penalty should have been called on Higgins, which would have nullified the touchdown. However, the referees on the field did not see this, so the score stood. This was not the only point in the game where players pushed the envelope when it came to penalties. According to sbnation.com, only six penalties were called all game, with half of these coming after the two-minute warning. Because of this penalty drought for most of the game, it not only makes sense that the players would test their luck about getting called, but they all should have been testing the limits to see if they could take advantage of the leniency.
Whether it’s pitch framing in baseball, questionable holding or pass interference in football or any other manipulation of officiating in sport, finding the zone of which an official will allow play to continue without a hitch is and should be a legitimate part of the game. On the flipside, while not every referee may call everything exactly the same way, they should all aim for personal consistency. For example, in baseball, each umpire usually has a slightly different definition of what the strike zone is. It’s up to pitchers to either know beforehand what a certain umpire usually calls a strike or at least to figure out what’s getting called on the day. For catchers, it’s imperative that they understand how to trick the umpire into thinking balls out of the strike zone. This is known as pitch framing, and many MLB catchers are adept at it.
Now, back to football. While, sure, people could complain until the cows come home that Higgins should have been penalized, nothing can be done about that. What should be commended is that the refs called defensive holding on the Bengals in the Rams’ final drive, which turned what would have been a Rams fourth down into a first down, and allowed Los Angeles to score and win the game. The Bengals played aggressive defense all game, especially on wide receiver Cooper Kupp, and they largely got away with it. However, that specific hold crossed the refs’ line, and they were rightfully called for it.
The bottom line here is that referees are not omniscient. The Bengals did a really good job at making plays that should have been called until they didn’t, and it caught up to them. If it hadn’t caught up to them, that would have also been fine. Until the NFL replaces human referees with robots that can see all angles of the field, no one really has a valid claim to criticize the officiating of the game or the conduct of the players unless they also volunteer to attempt to do a better job themselves.