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

Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Following up: Lions' officiating complaints

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

The famous slap on the back San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh delivered against his Detroit Lions counterpart wasn't the most questionable one Sunday.

As Jim Schwartz pointed out Monday, the 49ers never should have taken over possession in Lions territory after Ted Ginn Jr.'s 40-yard return in the final six minutes of a game Detroit was leading, 19-15. That is because 49ers safety Reggie Smith committed a blatant block in the back during the return, first pulling and then shoving the Lions' Maurice Stovall with enough force to expose the receiver's right shoulder pad.

Stovall was within three yards of Ginn and directly in front of him as Ginn gathered himself at the San Francisco 35-yard line, but Smith shoved him out of the play.

Update: One of my officiating contacts watched this play and said Smith was not guilty of a foul in part because one hand was on Stovall's side, Smith merely drove Stovall through the play and Smith was not in a chase position. Tavares Gooden also might have blocked John Wendling in the back.

Questionable penalties happen, of course, and the 49ers had legitimate beefs in this game as well, but nothing quite so ill-timed as this one. NFL.com shows the block at the 2:47 mark of its 49ers-Lions highlight package.

A penalty against the 49ers during the return would have changed game dynamics considerably.

"It was a little disappointing on that when there was a pretty significant block in the back," Schwartz told reporters Monday. "Geez, you talk about one play in the game; that might have been the one right there. It was a significant flip in field position because it's penalties from that point rather than from the end of that [return]."

Had officials administered a 10-yard penalty from the San Francisco 37, the 49ers would have taken over at their own 27. Win probability statistics say the 49ers would have had only a 29.5 percent chance of prevailing in the game had their drive begun that deep in their own territory, according to Alok Pattani of the ESPN analytics team.

Ginn ran out of bounds at the Detroit 40 on the play, but officials moved the ball to the 35 for the start of the drive. I reached out to the NFL for an explanation and will update with a response should I receive one. There was no penalty on the play. This appeared to reflect an error of basic administration.

"You expect officials to get balls spotted in the right spot and have the right down marker up and correct timing, things like that," Schwartz told 97.1-FM in Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. "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 (6) and weren’t able to get them stopped, because we make that play, then things are obviously a lot different."

Win probability stats gave the 49ers a 39.8 percent chance from the Detroit 40 and a 41.6 percent chance from the 35. The 1.8 percent difference is slim, but so was the margin by which officials declared Delanie Walker had moved the ball across the goal line with the winning 6-yard scoring reception before his right knee touched the ground.

Looks like this game will be memorable on many fronts: the 49ers getting to 5-1 for the first time since 2002; Alex Smith delivering the team's first winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes of a game since Jeff Garcia, also in 2002; the 49ers playing what coordinator Vic Fangio called the finest defensive performance he had been associated with; Frank Gore matching his career best with a third consecutive 100-yard rushing performance; and, of course, Harbaugh and Schwartz overshadowing it all with their postgame confrontation.

Also: The NFL acknowledged the error in spotting the ball at the 35 instead of the 40. "The officiating crew incorrectly spotted the ball at the Detroit 35 instead of the 40 where Ted Ginn went out of bounds," a league spokesman said.