Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC North [Print without images]

Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Dirty Laundry I: The Ginn return that wasn't*

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Now here's something worth running downfield and fighting over -- not to mention posting an early installment of Dirty Laundry. Referee Mike Carey's crew made two glaring mistakes on a punt return that set up the San Francisco 49ers' winning touchdown in last Sunday's 25-19 victory over the Detroit Lions.

As you recall, the 49ers' Ted Ginn Jr. was credited with a 40-yard return with 5 minutes, 29 seconds remaining in the game. At the time, the Lions held a 15-13 lead.

But a second look at the play, available at the 2:47 mark of this NFL.com highlight video, reveals two obvious errors, and we'll now *update with a third*:
  1. The 49ers' Reggie Smith blocked Lions cover man Maurice Stovall in the back, shoving him past Ginn as he cut back to the left sideline. The block/hold was so aggressive that it pulled Stovall's jersey off the right side of his shoulder pads. As Stovall turned to chase Ginn, his shoulder pads remained fully exposed.
  2. Ginn ran out of bounds at the 40-yard line to avoid Lions punter Ryan Donahue. But after the ensuing timeout, officials inexplicably marked the ball at the 35-yard line.
  3. Update: As @SlipToTheVoid and others have pointed out, it appears that Tavares Gooden blocked Lions cover man John Wendling in the back just before Ginn made his cut.

Had officials penalized Smith from the spot of the illegal block, the 49ers would have lost about 35 yards of field position and taken over around their 27-yard line with 5 minutes, 29 seconds left to play. As my NFC West colleague Mike Sando notes, their win probability with that field position would have dropped from 41.6 percent to 29.5 percent.

(ESPN calculates win probability based 10 years of NFL play-by-play data.)

The 49ers' win probability would have dropped only slightly had they taken over at the 40-yard line, instead of the 35. But who knows how the extra five yards might have impacted the 49ers' winning score, a 6-yard touchdown pass on fourth down; Delanie Walker crossed the plane of the end zone just before his knee touched the ground.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz acknowledged both mistakes during his weekly radio appearance Tuesday on 97.1-FM in Detroit. Asked about the incorrect mark, Schwartz said (via the Detroit Free Press):
"Yeah, we saw that after the game. At the time there was also -- I don't want to sound like I'm complaining -- but there was a block in the back on that play. And that's what we were really more concerned on was trying to get clarification on that, why that wasn't called. And lost in that shuffle was that five yards. And there's a lot of things that you expect. You expect officials to get balls spotted in the right spot and have the right down marker up and correct timing, things like that. Those really aren't subjective things like the spot of a ball when a runner's down by contact or something like that. And that was obviously an unfortunate thing that went on in the game. It still doesn't change the fact that we have fourth-and-goal from the 5 and weren’t able to get them stopped because we make that play then things are obviously a lot different."

I agree. I guess Sunday was not the first time an official has missed an illegal block in the back on a key punt return. And the 49ers, who were penalized 15 times in the game, probably have their fair share of complaints. But there is no excuse for spotting the ball incorrectly, whether it is at the start of a game-winning drive or at a meaningless point in the game. It is literally the first and most basic thing officials must do on every play. If there was a mitigating circumstance in this instance, the NFL hasn't revealed it.

Programming note: I'll have another Dirty Laundry post, complete with our weekly Penalty Tracker, later this week. Busy week at the cleaners.