There are plenty of legitimate reasons the 49ers lost the Super Bowl.
The 49ers couldn't stop the Ravens on third down. The Ravens offensive line dominated the 49ers defensive line, which appeared helpless on every short yardage first down conversion. Donte Whitner was targeted and exposed as a marginal pass defender. Chris Culliver played like a Ravens fan in a Chris Culliver jersey. LaMichael James fumbled 30 yards from the end zone. And, as the city has been buzzing about, Jim Harbaugh's play-calling toward the end of the team's final drive was stagnant and ineffective.
On the above points, the Ravens out-played and out-coached the 49ers. But this was a close game, and if that fourth down toss had fallen into Michael Crabtree's arms, someone would be writing about all the legitimate reasons the Ravens lost.
Indeed, wins and losses in these kinds of games often trace back to a handful a crucial turning points -- big and small plays on which each team's trajectory hinged. On a few of those turning points, 49ers fans can rightfully gripe. Nobody likes a sore loser. Already, people are lobbing charges of #whiners. But, according to the rules of fandom, you get a free pass in the week following a heartbreaking loss. Because few things can alleviate the pain like a good vent session.
So here are five things 49ers fans can complain about.
1. The Crabtree No-Call
The pass interference no-call on the 49ers final play has been a staple of the post-game discourse. People are generally split, with the majority apparently in agreement with the referee's decision. The crux of that argument is that cornerback Jimmy Smith's grabbing of the jersey did not sufficiently restrict Crabtree's movement -- did not "materially affect or significantly impede the receiver, creating a distinct advantage," as the NFL rulebook explains. There's a fair case either way. You could argue that borderline ball-up-for-grabs plays like that should never get flagged, that for too long the NFL's enforcement of pass interference has been unfair to defensive backs.
But that's not the point. For years, plays like that have been flagged, and the NFL's enforcement of pass interference has been unfair to defensive backs. And then all of a sudden, it wasn't.
2. The Helmet-to-Helmet Missed Call
If anything, the debate over the pass interference no-call has overshadowed the more clear-cut missed calls. Seconds before, for instance, Colin Kaepernick tossed Crabtree the ball near the sideline. As Crabtree turned upfield and took one step forward, Smith rocked him, the crown of his helmet smacking Crabtree's facemask. Almost always, such contact draws a 15-yard penalty for a "helmet-to-helmet hit." In this case, the 49ers would have had first down inside the three-yard line.
3. Cary Williams Shoved a Ref
There was brief and mild rumble between the two teams after Ed Reed intercepted Colin Kaepernick in the second quarter. During that skirmish, Ravens cornerback Cary Williams shoved referee Steve Stelljes (the same guy responsible for the no-call on the final toss to Crabtree).
Williams wasn't even penalized for it. "Zero tolerance,'' [NFL officiating czar Mike] Pereira said. "It should have merited an ejection. I don't know what went through the head linesman's mind, but the fact is you've got to eject for contact." So what was the result? Williams started the game and played all 62 defensive snaps for Baltimore. The scrum occurred on the 20th play, so the Ravens would have had to play nickel back Jimmy Smith or sub Chykie Brown (who did not play a single snap from scrimmage in the game) in Williams' place.
Who knows what factor it would have had on the game, but to play the final two-thirds of the Super Bowl with only three corners could have made an impact. Williams did have two passes defensed the rest of the game. Maybe his presence in coverage on Randy Moss on the game's last three plays -- all three of them throws to Michael Crabtree -- influenced the Niners not throwing a fade to one of the best fade catchers ever, Moss. We'll never know.
4. Lots of Holding on the Ravens' Intentional Safety
When the Ravens took the safety at the end of the game, several of their players were hugging or grabbing or pulling 49ers players. This, of course, helps explain why punter Sam Koch was able to stand in the back of the end zone and burn eight seconds off the clock. It was a smart move. The penalty for holding in the end zone is a safety, which was the point of the play anyway. But, somehow, a flag was not thrown.
It really wouldn't have mattered; a penalty would not have brought those eight seconds back. Plus, we're talking about eight seconds. Complain at your own discretion.
5. Kick Return Touchdown Missed Holding Call
During Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kickoff return touchdown to open the second half, Albert McClellan and Brendan Ayanbadejo locked 49ers fullback Bruce Miller between them, McClellan bear-hugging him from behind and Ayanbadejo pulling his jersey collar.
Of course, there's the old saying in football: If you look hard enough, you'll see holding on every play.
And when a team loses a Super Bowl by 5 yards, there will be lots of hard looking. Only the losing team goes back and points out all the ways the refs cost them the game. Ravens fans, if their team had lost, could certainly find their own qualms with the officiating. They could cite the blackout as the unjust moment that triggered the 49ers' comeback victory.
But they won, so they can celebrate and savor the afterglow. Here in San Francisco, there is sadness and pain. A craving for complaints and excuses. Get them in while you can. And then we can all move on.