SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For a fleeting moment -- and for the second time in the past four weeks -- the San Francisco 49ers were on the verge of a huge comeback victory. And for the second time, the chances of that happening were wiped away by a questionable offensive pass interference call that effectively killed the drive and any hopes of coming away with a win.
With 22 seconds left in Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Niners had second-and-10 at Washington's 40-yard line. A game-winning field goal from there would have required Robbie Gould to connect from about 58 yards, a kick coach Kyle Shanahan said the Niners were willing to try but which wasn't an ideal attempt with the game on the line.
On the play, quarterback C.J. Beathard dropped back and looked to his left where he had receiver Pierre Garcon running a slant to the inside and running back Carlos Hyde running to the flat. As Garcon made his break, he ran into Redskins linebacker Zach Brown. Beathard attempted to fit the pass into Garcon, but the contact between Garcon and Brown threw off the timing, and Washington cornerback Quinton Dunbar knocked it away.
A moment later, a flag came out, and the Niners began celebrating in belief that it was a defensive pass interference that would put them in more manageable field-goal range.
“I thought 100 percent it was defensive pass interference," Beathard said. "From my point of view, it looked like it wasn’t even a question, and then after that point, we’d be in really good field-goal range with the penalty. We needed four more yards and that would’ve given us more than enough for Robbie [Gould] to kick a game winner."
The flag was indeed for pass interference, but the call actually went against Garcon, who vehemently protested it to no avail. Instead of first down about 4 yards closer, the Niners suddenly faced second-and-20 from the 50. Two plays later, Beathard's desperation heave was intercepted, effectively ending the team's hopes.
Shanahan explained what he saw on the play on Monday after initially offering little on it Sunday.
“Any time you run a man coverage play, guys running to the flat is not a good play for man coverage," Shanahan said. "It's hard to get open running a flat route. You're just running to the flat. That's usually for zone. Pierre is running a slant, which is for man. The guy guarding the flat runs into Pierre, who is running a slant, which makes now the flat open.
"So, if you think about it, that's why you hope you go to the flat after that happens. But in man, that's why guys on defense, when you play man coverage and you are having to guard a guy on a flat route and they are bumping outside on the slant, that's why it's very important defensive standpoint you play at different levels. Because if you don't and you're chasing a guy to the flat as a guy is running a slant, you will run into that slant runner every time and you usually get a defensive pass interference.”
With no desire to get fines for complaining about officials, Garcon took to Instagram to make his point, though he had a few quick words after the game.
"One call does not win us or lose us this game," Garcon said. "I’ll leave it at that."
Indeed it doesn't, but the Niners have now been on the wrong end of such controversial calls twice this season. In their Week 3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, wideout Trent Taylor was called for a pushoff as the Niners were driving for a possible game-winning field goal. That call wiped out a pivotal first down, pinning the Niners back and ultimately leading to a loss.
Offensive pass interference remains one of the more rarely-called penalties in the league. Through Sunday's games, there had been 41 called this season, but the Niners have been flagged for it on four occasions, third most in the league.
Sunday's penalty led to one of the most drastic swings in win probability of the week. The Niners' chances of a win dropped a whopping 27.3 percent after the call.
“Obviously, I mean, I don’t agree with it, but that’s part of the game," Beathard said. "You can’t put it in the ref’s hands, you’ve got to go win it as an offense, as a defense, as a team. But you can be the judge of that one.”