Football Zebras exclusive
Football Zebras has learned from two sources that Bill Leavy, an official in the NFL since 1995, wearing number 127, is stepping aside after 20 years to take the northeastern regional supervisor position for the officiating department, where he will observe other officials and grade their performance. Leavy will be replacing former referee Johnny Grier as supervisor. Leavy has not responded to our requests for comment. The league has stated that any officiating staff inquiries are deferred until the roster is released this month, which includes identifying Leavy’s successor.
As a child, Leavy had to overcome a physical disability in order to lead a normal life. He revealed in a Referee magazine profile that he was born severely pigeon-toed, requiring his legs to be surgically broken and reset so he could walk normally. He overcame that obstacle to be a firefighter and police officer in San Jose, Calif.
An official in the Big West Conference for many years, Leavy was hired by the NFL in 1995 as part of a staffing increase due to the addition of the expansion Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Leavy received his first Super Bowl assignment in his first year of eligibility. He worked as a back judge in Super Bowl XXXIV, following the 1999 season.
Leavy was promoted to referee for the 2001 season, but his first game was delayed first by a labor impasse, then by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Not wanting to bargain after the tragedies, the collective bargaining agreement was sorted out quickly by both sides. After the league postponed the Week 2 games, Leavy’s first game as referee was the Rams-49ers game at Candlestick Park. Leavy wore a San Francisco Fire Department hat during the coin toss in tribute to others in the profession, calling it a privilege to wear the hat during the toss, owing to his careers as a public servant.
Leavy’s second Super Bowl was as a referee in Super Bowl XL, where he and the crew were met with sharp criticism. The Seattle Times published a list of six questionable calls from the game, although none of those calls were Leavy’s with the exception of his role in the replay review. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said at a consolation rally, “We knew it was going to be tough going against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn’t know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well.”
Four years later, in 2010, Leavy publicly admitted that the Super Bowl wasn’t his best performance, and took responsibility for two unidentified calls when addressing the Seahawks training camp on rules changes.
It was a tough thing for me. I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter and I impacted the game, and as an official you never want to do that. It left me with a lot of sleepless nights, and I think about it constantly. I’ll go to my grave wishing that I’d been better … I know that I did my best at that time, but it wasn’t good enough … When we make mistakes, you got to step up and own them. It’s something that all officials have to deal with, but unfortunately when you have to deal with it in the Super Bowl it’s difficult.
The league resumed his assignments to Seahawks games in 2009, after Holmgren left the Seahawks. The year after his comments, Leavy was assigned to a Steelers-Seahawks matchup — the two teams who played that fateful game.
Controversy continued in 2013, when he and his crew were cited for a pair of rules misapplications. The first occurred in San Francisco when the Packers were visiting the 49ers. A muddled enforcement where the difference was milliseconds wound up being a difference of four points. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was penalized for a late hit on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of bounds. After the late hit, both teams scuffled and the 49ers were ultimately penalized with an unnecessary roughness penalty. However, because the Matthews foul was two steps after the ball was dead, the fouls were on the dead-ball side of the ledger, and the proper call would have been to offset the two fouls, allow the down to count, and ultimately place the 49ers in a likely field goal situation. In a postgame pool report, Leavy agreed that the penalty was enforced incorrectly and acknowledged the incorrect placement of the ball.
Two weeks later, Leavy misapplied a new rule regarding replay. During a game between the Browns and Vikings in Minnesota, Vikings coach Leslie Frasier decided to challenge an aspect of a play where the Vikings recovered a muffed punt. However, since it was a loose-ball recovery by the Vikings, the entire play is outside of the ability for the coach to challenge according to the rules. In this scenario, Bill Leavy’s crew assessed a 15-yard penalty on the Vikings, instead of charging the Vikings with a timeout under the new rule. The next play was a 1st-and-25, which would have been correct only if the Vikings were out of timeouts (the yardage is assessed between downs).
In the 2014 season, Leavy was involved in an unusual call when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers fumbled the ball against the Bills at the 3-yard line after the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter (video). Running back Eddie Lacy scooped up the loose ball in the end zone, and Leavy immediately blew the play dead. In all of the craziness, Leavy invoked the Holy Roller rule that states the ball is dead if an offensive player recovers a teammate’s fumble after the two-minute warning. Since the ball was dead in the end zone, he then signaled it was a safety while most football fans were still trying to wrap their heads around what happened. Despite the complicated ruling, Leavy had the correct call immediately without deliberation.
Though controversies arise with each official and every crew, Leavy’s career officiating in the NFL was not without high acclaim and prestigious assignments due to his skills on the field. Leavy earned 16 postseason assignments in his career, including the two Super Bowls, four Wild Card Playoffs, nine Divisional Playoffs, and one Conference Championship. Unusually, Leavy’s two Super Bowl assignments preceded his Conference Championship assignment.
Leavy’s last assignment was the Divisional Playoff game between the Colts and Broncos.
In addition to regional supervisor duties, Leavy will be responsible for meeting with the 17 referees — including his replacement — during the annual officials clinic to review new rules and mechanics.
Ben Austro and Mark Schultz contributed to this report.