SEATTLE — The Seahawks bailed out the NFL and its officials on Sunday. They spared football fans from endless grotesque replays of 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman clutching a fumble recovery at the goal line while one of his legs curved in an unnatural angle under another man’s body. If it weren’t for a dubious decision by Pete Carroll and the subsequently botched handoff between Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, Seattle wouldn’t be getting its due as a Super Bowl team today. Instead, the men with whistles, and the inane rules that govern their use of technology, would be on trial.
The Seahawks led 20-17 with about 8 1/2 minutes left in the NFC title game when Bowman stripped the ball from receiver Jermaine Kearse at the 1, rolled backward with it in his grasp and fell to the ground, where he refused to be separated from the ball even as parts of his left leg disconnected from each other. A Seahawk grabbed it from a howling Bowman after the play should have been over, and the officials missed the pertinent details in the messy scene.
They gave possession to Seattle and then told 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh that they couldn’t review the play. If he threw a challenge flag, they said, he would lose a timeout and gain nothing. Once a fumble has been called, according to NFL replay rules, the initial decision about who recovered it cannot be overturned.
“This is the second time this has happened this year, and I’ve been told that they (the NFL) will look to make this reviewable,” former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said in his role as a Fox analyst.
Then Carroll came through, going for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1 rather than settling for a field goal and a 23-17 lead. The fumbled handoff sent the ball tumbling backward, giving the 49ers a first down at the 15. All the officials had cost them was 9 seconds on the game clock.
“I can’t say that that had any factor in the game because of what happened on the very next play,’’ Harbaugh said.
Since 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick still had two interceptions in his holster, one might argue that the call would have been rendered moot even if the Seahawks had scored immediately after a medical cart took Bowman away. But the score would have been distorted at that point, possibly altering the 49ers’ offensive choices.
The call would have swiped Seattle’s stage, muffled the NFL’s trash-talking laureate, Richard Sherman, and undermined the Super Bowl. It would have tainted a thrilling conference title game that Harbaugh aptly called “a 15-rounder.’’ Instead of relishing footage of Richard Sherman tipping Colin Kaepernick’s final pass of the season to a teammate in the zone or savoring a sublime 4th-and-7 touchdown pass from Wilson to Kearse, we’d have to debate whether the right team won, why the NFL takes vital tools out of the hands of its officials in certain situations and why, in a season where they seem to have gone more wayward than ever, the officials didn’t get the call right in the first place.
Aside from the general absurdity of the situation, the sight of Bowman’s contorted leg would have lit the controversy for TV all week along.
The Seahawks deserve better. They deserve a controversy centered on Sherman’s lunacy. (Abomination? Antidote to the league’s say-nothing blandness?) They belong in the Super Bowl. They didn’t need a gnarly present from the officials. So they re-gifted it, using different wrapping, and gave themselves the right to celebrate without a doubt.