Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.
Remember the 2013 NFC Championship Game? It is mostly remembered as the de facto 48th Super Bowl where Colin Kaepernick tried to lead his San Francisco 49ers to a win in Seattle with a last-minute drive that ended when Richard Sherman tipped a ball intended for Mike Crabtree into the waiting arms of linebacker Malcolm Smith.
And ya know what? It was all bullshit. San Francisco never should’ve even had to engineer a touchdown drive to win. In a world with just, virtuous football gods, the 49ers would’ve been milking the clock in the waning minutes to punch their ticket to New Jersey and the big air conditioner for the right to take the Denver Broncos behind the woodshed.
Alas, such a noble, pure world eludes us.
First, the refs let the Seahawks off the hook for roughing the kicker
That was flagrantly underscored when the Niners, nursing a four-point lead with 18 minutes left to play, lined up to punt. The Seahawks’ Chris Maragos clearly, obviously, and recklessly flew into punter Andy Lee’s left, plant leg.
That particular infraction is supposed to carry with it a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down, as former officiating czar Mike Pereira astutely pointed out. But instead the refs erroneously called running into, not roughing, the kicker — a meaningless penalty that ultimately had zero effect.
The rules on this matter could not be more clear; it is literally the first item listed as to what constitutes a roughing call.
Item 1. Roughing the kicker. It is a foul for roughing the kicker if a defensive player:
contacts the plant leg of the kicker while his kicking leg is still in the air
And it’s not as if this were a close call or open to judgment. It was as clear and obvious as it gets, with two officials staring right at it. And they absolutely botched it.
So Seattle got the ball to start a possession it did not deserve. The Seahawks then drove 27 yards to reach San Francisco’s 35-yard line — the outer limits of kicker Stephen Hauschka’s range for a field goal. But if the prior egregious officiating error can be written off as simply a blown call that inevitably occurs in sports from time to time, the glaring administrative error committed by the officials that was about to come was unequivocally inexcusable.
Then, the refs give the Seahawks 18 extra seconds
To reach the 35-yard line, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson connected with tight end Zach Miller on the first play of the fourth quarter. That play ended with 14:50 left on the game clock, and, facing a fourth-and-7, Pete Carroll spent some time deliberating as to whether he wanted to go for it or send Hauschka out there to try a long field goal. He wound up calling on Hauschka, then reconsidered and called a timeout.
But here’s what I want you to notice upon the timeout: the game clock. 13:52.
The NFL play clock is 40 seconds. Uhhhh, excuse me?
I don’t think it takes a mathematician to realize that Seattle was inexplicably just straight up gifted an extra 18 seconds, and something very wonky was going on. Joe Buck even nonchalantly remarks that they reset the play clock. For some reason he didn’t act like that was extremely bizarre and a huge deal.
But it was! It was extremely bizarre, an extremely huge deal, and completely unfathomable. That is not something the refs get to do! They do not get to reset a play clock just because they feel like it or because perhaps Carroll asked very nicely to pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top just this once grant them a 58-second play clock.
But apparently that’s exactly what the officiating crew did.
And over a half-decade later, I’m still waiting for my explanation from the league office as to why there was no delay of game that would’ve either turned the 53-yard field-goal attempt into a try from 58, or forced Seattle to convert a fourth-and-12 from the 40 instead of a fourth-and-7 from the 35.
Getting let off the hook yet again enabled Carroll to send out his offense. Then on fourth down the Seahawks scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown — on a drive that never should’ve existed in the first place, on a play that, if it did hypothetically have to exist, should’ve followed a delay of game flag that would’ve pushed them back five yards.
If the refs had properly flagged Maragos OR had not executed as mystifying a procedural blunder as has ever existed in the history of organized athletics, the 49ers would be your Super Bowl 48 champs, San Fransisco CEO Jed York would’ve given Jimmy Harbaugh a blank check that tied him to the team for years into the future … and, oh yeah, Kaepernick would still be an NFL quarterback.