The Super Bowl Showcased
the Best and Worst of the Modern NFL
There were trick plays, gutsy coaching decisions and a wild finish. There were also controversial calls and a grisly injury. Basically, the Super Bowl had everything good—and bad—that the league has to offer.
By Andrew Beaton
As Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie watched the pivotal play of Sunday’s Super Bowl, a worrying thought crept into his mind.
Philadelphia tight end Zach Ertz had just caught a touchdown pass to put his team up 38-33 over the New England Patriots in the final minutes. But the ball shook free as Ertz crash-landed into the end zone. Lurie immediately recalled a strikingly similar play from earlier in the season, in which a similar catch was waved off upon re-examination. The refs, reviewing the play, could do the same here, he knew.
“You just never know how they’re going to interpret it,” Lurie says.
This was Super Bowl LII in a nutshell: an all-time thrill and a showcase of football’s glaring flaws.
If aliens had teleported down to Earth Sunday and watched their first football game, they would have learned all they need to know about the NFL. This one game, the Eagles 41-33 win over the Patriots, had pretty much everything that’s intoxicating and everything that’s broken in this sport.
First, the fireworks: This was a breathtaking shootout that had more total yards than any other Super Bowl ever, and that happened after three quarters. The game had two late comebacks—with the Patriots’ rallying from a double-digit deficit to take the lead, only for Philly to reclaim it.
There were trick plays, boneheaded mistakes and gutsy coaching decisions. The offenses were so good that the team that lost never punted and its quarterback, Tom Brady, set a record for passing yards in the Super Bowl. The result of the game was an upset in favor of the football-obsessed town that had never won a Super Bowl. The hero, Nick Foles, came out of nowhere to become one of football’s great talismanic figures.
This was enough excitement to last several Super Bowls.
But the game was messy, too. Not one, but two critical plays drew attention to the NFL’s most obtuse rule, involving what it means to catch a ball. And a star player went down with a grisly head injury on a punishing hit. These were the league’s worst nightmares.
The first-half injury was just the latest bone-rattling hit in the playoffs. Two weeks ago in the AFC Championship, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski took a hit to the head against the Jaguars and did not return to the game. After New England’s Super Bowl loss, Gronkowski, one of the NFL’s biggest stars, said he’d have to re-evaluate his future playing the game. (He declined to specify why.)
This time, New England’s No. 1 receiver, Brandin Cooks, went down after a crushing hit to the head. He was still on the ground as a quiet settled over the raucous crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium. Quickly, he was ruled out for the rest of the Super Bowl. Replays showed the immense force of the hit as Cooks fell to the ground—the exact image that has dogged football as it has fought health and safety concerns, especially those related to head injuries and concussions.
Then there were the controversial calls that will be lamented on Boston talk radio until the end of time. Children grow up and become adults with an understanding of what it means to catch an object. But the NFL’s catch rule is so convoluted that the players themselves and the people watching the game don’t have the slightest clue on some plays until a final decision is announced. This has been a high-profile problem for years, but never before had it potentially decided the league’s champion in such a pressing moment.
On that decisive fourth-quarter play, the one that ultimately gave the Eagles the lead for good, Ertz caught the pass from Foles at about the 5-yard line. He took a few steps and then dove. When Ertz landed in the end zone, the ball hit the ground and caromed free.
It looked like a catch and touchdown. The officials ruled it as one immediately. But anybody who followed football this season had every reason to believe the call could be reversed and turn Philly bars into expletive-filled protests.
Here’s why this play in particular was so maddening: Something nearly identical had happened during the regular season. Both Sunday’s play and the other one were characterized by: a late drive in search of a comeback, a pass to the tight end, a loose ball caused by the ground when the tight end reached into the end zone and a ruling of touchdown on the field.
Both plays went to review: In the first instance, the Steelers saw their score overturned. Pittsburgh fans were outraged. Only the most long-winded explanations about things like what it means to “survive the ground” attempted to justify the decision.
So the Eagles owner and everybody else who has gone their lifetime without seeing Philadelphia win a Super Bowl were understandably concerned that Sunday’s replay review would yield the exact same decision. The only thing more confusing than the catch rule: This one, unlike the other, was ruled a touchdown.
As Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery watched it unfold he was sure it was a score. Then again, he adds, he thought the Pittsburgh one was too. “They need to change that rule,” Jeffery says.
Earlier in the week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said this confounding rule will be revisited. Now it’s even more urgent: The rule didn’t just complicate the Super Bowl once. All of this was exacerbated by the fact that there was an equally controversial catch-rule play earlier in the second half. This one also came on an Eagles touchdown. Foles hit running back Corey Clement in the back of the end zone. But the ball didn’t appear entirely secure as he fell out of bounds. This one was also reviewed—and called a touchdown.
For everyone exasperated at home with no idea what was going on, there was nothing else to think. Not even the guys tasked with explaining all of this to the tens of millions of people watching had an idea.
“I give up,” NBC broadcaster Cris Collinsworth said on-air.