In one of the most amazing “what if’s?” of all time, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco instructed his teammates to illegally run off the sidelines and tackle the 49ers punt returner at the end of the Super Bowl if it looked like he was going to score.
Here’s what happened:
With four seconds left and Baltimore leading 34-31, the Ravens kicked off to the 49ers. On the sidelines before that kickoff, NFL Network cameras caught Flacco telling his teammates:
“Hey, if he breaks it, if he busts this for some reason, tackle him. Go tackle him. I don’t know what the rule is on that but … I’m going to.”
Flacco’s theory: There was so little time left that it was worth it for some random guy to run off the sidelines and illegally prevent a touchdown.
The worst that could happen is you get a 15-yard penalty and the 49ers have to score a touchdown on one play, right?
No! Because if one of the Ravens players did that, it would have been within the referee’s jurisdiction to give the 49ers a Super Bowl-winning touchdown with zero seconds left.
The play would fall into the category of a “palpably unfair act.” From the rulebook:
Rule 5. Section 1. Article 4: If a substitute enters the field of play or the end zone while the ball is in play, it is an illegal substitution. If an illegal substitute interferes with the play, it may be a palpably unfair act (see 12-3-3).
Rule 12. Section 4. Article 3: Palpably Unfair Act. A player or substitute shall not interfere with play by any act which is palpably unfair.
Penalty: For a palpably unfair act: Offender may be disqualified. The Referee, after consulting his crew, enforces any such distance penalty as they consider equitable and irrespective of any other specified code penalty. The Referee may award a score.
So if a Ravens player who wasn’t in the game got jumpy and tackled 49ers return man Tedd Ginn Jr., the Ravens probably would have automatically lost the Super Bowl.
There are obviously a lot of questions here.
What would the refs have done?
There would have been zero seconds left, and the rule says the refs can rule whatever they want. Would they have had the courage to single-handedly give the Super Bowl to the 49ers? Would they have placed the ball at the one-yard line and forced San Francisco to decide between a game-tying field goal and a winning touchdown?
What if a Ravens player did it when Ginn wasn’t definitely going to score?
All we know is Flacco told his teammates to do something really, really dumb. If Ginn had found one more seam, we might have seen the craziest ending in NFL history.