NFC West Penalty Watch: Critical non-call

New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin thought referee Tony Corrente and crew should have flagged San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis for holding in the final seconds of their game Sunday.

2009-present Defensive Holding (LBs)

"I think that it’s safe to say that that was defensive holding, yes," Coughlin told reporters this week.

Coughlin's counterpart, Jim Harbaugh, thought Willis operated within the rules when the Pro Bowl linebacker met Giants tight end Jake Ballard with an aggressive jam near the line of scrimmage.

"His arms never got involved," Harbaugh told reporters. "He was playing Ballard off the line, saw his head dip down and I thought it was an outstanding play. There’s allowed to be contact within the first five yards. I have to disagree with coach on that, that he was tackled. I didn’t see Ballard be tackled by Patrick Willis."

For Coughlin, banking on such a call from Corrente might have been a losing proposition. More on that in a bit.

The non-call helped turn over possession on downs, allowing the 49ers to run on the clock on a 27-20 victory at Candlestick Park.

Replays showed Willis lowering his right shoulder and driving it into Ballard's midsection at the line of scrimmage. Willis placed his left hand just below Ballard's right hip. Pausing the video did make it appear as though Willis were preparing to execute a form tackle. The impact lifted Ballard off the ground. But when Ballard landed, he released freely. By then, 49ers defensive end Justin Smith had batted down Eli Manning's pass.

The play made me wonder whether this particular officiating crew called these types of penalties more or less frequently than the crews associated with the other 16 referees. Turns out the crew working the 49ers-Giants game, headed by Corrente, is the only current crew to make zero defensive holding calls against linebackers since the start of the 2009 season.

There have been 59 such calls since 2009, according to ESPN Stats & Information. A referee's crew sometimes changes membership, potentially affecting tendencies, but Corrente's crew has remained largely the same since 2009. Every other crew, including the one led by Clete Blakeman, who has been a referee only since 2010, had made at least one defensive holding call against a linebacker since 2009.

What does this mean? Perhaps nothing. It's possible Corrente's crew has worked games featuring fewer potential holding calls against linebackers. It's also possible his crew is more lenient on these calls.

In this case, a call against Willis would have been more controversial than a non-call, in my view. I'm not convinced Willis violated the rules. Making a call in that situation would have given the Giants a first down, wiping out Smith's pass breakup. Had the Giants then scored and won in overtime, officiating would have been the story of the game.

It's a footnote at this point, but an interesting one given Corrente's history.