One day later, Harbaugh still unconvinced
CINCINNATI -- Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh wasn't happy Sunday with the offensive pass interference call against wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. in the fourth quarter of his team's 27-24 loss against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, a penalty that wiped out an apparent 80-yard go-ahead touchdown.
Harbaugh hadn't changed his mind on Monday after reviewing the play, even though numerous analysts and former referees agreed with the call.
"I've studied it, I understand what happened," Harbaugh said during a Monday press conference at the team's complex in Owings Mills, MD. "My opinion of it is obvious. I think it's pretty clear cut. It happened; it was what it was."
Smith and Bengals safety George Iloka were battling for position as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco unleashed a throw that spiraled more than 60 yards in the air downfield. Flacco had broken containment of the Bengals' pass rush on a third-and-10 play that began with 47 seconds left. The Bengals had finished off an 80-yard drive with a 1-yard Andy Dalton quarterback sneak to regain the lead just 10 seconds of game clock prior.
As Iloka and Smith Sr. jockeyed for position, Smith Sr. grabbed hold of Iloka's jersey near his neck and pushed him down to the ground. Smith Sr. isn't tall in stature (5-9) but even at 195 pounds he is one of the strongest wide receivers in the NFL. It's one of his top attributes and a reason why he is playing his 14th season in the league.
The NFL has made offensive pass interference a point of emphasis for its officials this season. The league is dictated by many rules that favor the offense but on this particular play it's a matter of giving the defender a fair shot at the ball if he's in the correct position.
Iloka and Smith Sr. were both in good position to go for the pass.
"It was a damn good call because I thought right away he pushed me," said Iloka on Sunday. "I'm bigger than him. He can't push me off. He can't out-jump me for it. We both looked back. He had both hands on my chest, knocked me off and the ref called it. It was a great call."
Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was positioned near the line of scrimmage when the play developed. As Flacco broke the pocket and to his right, he was headed in Guenther's direction.
"When I saw him throw the ball, the first thing that went through my mind was where we watched the Denver playoff game (in 2012) where they threw the ball to Jacoby Jones. It was very similar," said Guenther, referencing a Hail Mary throw that helped the Ravens beat the Broncos in an AFC Divisional round game. "So the ball's in the air, and I'm looking at it. I saw the receiver sitting there and they were both kind of sitting down there and then you saw the push off and George goes down on the ground. I saw the flag come out and you never know.
"They're so hard on the defensive guys. But I thought it was the right call. In my opinion, if it's pass interference, regardless of the situation, it's pass interference. One way or another. Offensively or defensively. It shouldn't matter the situation, what time's on the clock. That's the rules. I thought it was a clear push off and I was hoping the guy would call it in our favor, and he did."
According to NFL stats, through Sunday's game, there had been a total of 63 offensive pass interference calls made across the league, with 16 of them being declined. There have been 130 defensive pass interference calls, with 18 declined. San Francisco has been flagged seven times for offensive pass interference, the most of any team, although three of the penalties have been declined.
Smith Sr. was called for offensive pass interference once previously this season, in the fourth quarter at Cleveland in Week 3, but the Browns declined the penalty. He's been flagged 13 times for the penalty, with three of the flags being declined. He's been called for offensive pass interference at least once in six straight seasons. That's a sign of his physical playing style.
Harbaugh wasn't about to apologize for that style (nor should he) and said it's that kind of style that will help his team the rest of the season. Whether or not any yellow flags are involved will be up to someone else to decide.
"I think it's one of the greatest plays I've ever seen," said Harbaugh. "It was a great play. I think it shows great heart and talent and effort. It says a lot about Joe and Steve and the offensive line to even make a play like that."
The Bengals are one of three teams, along with San Diego and Dallas, who have not yet been called for offensive pass interference. They were called for it four times in 2013, twice on wide receiver A.J. Green and twice on tight end Jermaine Gresham.
"Coach (James Urban) tells us to just watch out for the extension of the arms, to stay within your body and don't push off or anything like that," said wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. "Use your feet for separation. You don't need to use your hands."
If Iloka had committed the same action to Smith Sr. as Smith Sr. did to Iloka, there is little doubt the referee's flag would have come out against Iloka. If that had been the case, no one would have thought twice about whether or not it was the right call.
"You've seen it a hundred times," said Guenther. "How do you call it on the defensive guy? He was in position to make a play and as soon as he threw the flag I was thinking this has got to be on them, and it was. It was clear to me what it was."