The Football Zebras staff — with the assistance of our affiliated forum, Behind the Football Stripes — has examined the Super Bowls of years past for the work of the officials who, in a given year, achieve the honor of the best of the best. While every team competes for that dream, the officiating staff is also competing to get that assignment to the final game of the year.
We have found 50 of those calls worthy of our list of Super Bowl calls. They may be good calls, questionable calls, or controversial calls. There are unusual rules interpretations or circumstances. There are moments where officials were tested, where judgements had to be made, where the fortune of an entire season hangs in the balance.
We are more than halfway to number 1. Before we get to our top ten, here is Part 4.
20. Quick safety on first snap
Super Bowl XLVIII
Seahawks vs. Broncos
February 2, 2014
Covering officials: R Terry McAulay, U Carl Paganelli
Even if the players ease into the game, the officials do not have that luxury. After having an eventful coin toss (#50), the crew for Super Bowl XLVIII was tested again right away.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos lined up at their own 14-yard line for the first play from scrimmage. Manning was in shotgun formation and as he moved forward to make an audible call when center Manny Ramirez prematurely snapped the ball over Manning’s head into the end zone. Players from both teams ran after the ball, and it was recovered by Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno in the end zone for a safety. Referee Terry McAulay and umpire Carl Paganelli kept themselves away from the players moving toward the loose ball and were in position to rule on the safety.
McAulay correctly flagged Manning for illegal motion on the play. It is illegal for any offensive player — including the quarterback — to be moving forward at the time of the snap. This is a live-ball foul, because the foul itself occurs when the ball is snapped. McAulay was right to flag Manning for this acton, and right not to blow the play dead. The Seahawks declined the penalty to keep the safety. This was the third consecutive Super Bowl with a safety, with two of them occurring on a team’s first play from scrimmage.
NFL video (opens in an external window)
19. First coach’s challenge fails on Jamal Lewis TD
Super Bowl XXXV
Ravens vs. Giants
January 28, 2001
Covering officials: LJ Walt Anderson, R Gerry Austin
The Baltimore Ravens were leading the New York Giants 24-7 early in the 4th quarter, and were in scoring position again at the Giants 3-yard line with 8:50 to play. On first down, quarterback Trent Dilfer tossed the ball to running back Jamal Lewis, who ran to the left and as Lewis extended the ball over goal line he was hit and the ball was knocked loose. Line Judge Walt Anderson immediately signaled touchdown as soon as Lewis extended the ball over goal line and three Giants players immediately argued with Anderson, saying that Lewis lost possession of the ball before it crossed the plane of the goal line.
Giants head coach Jim Fassel threw his challenge flag and referee Gerry Austin reviewed the play. Even though this was the second season since the return of instant replay to the NFL, this was the first play to be reviewed in a Super Bowl under the coach’s challenge system. (There were no replay reviews in the previous Super Bowl.) Also, for this game CBS premiered their brand new technology called EyeVision, which allowed for their cameras to develop a 180° composite image.
Even though the first few replays shown by CBS appeared to show the ball being knocked loose prior to Lewis breaking the plane of the goal line, later replays — including the EyeVision images — did indeed show that the ball was in Lewis’ possession as it crossed the goal line with enough certainty for Austin to uphold Anderson’s call. This call highlights the importance of instant replay in the NFL, as well as the the need for officials to be just as sharp when the game score is 31-7 as it is when it is 31-31.
18. Charlie Waters collides with umpire on Franco Harris TD
Super Bowl XIII
Steelers vs. Cowboys
January 21, 1979
Covering official: U Art Demmas
Early in the fourth quarter, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw handed the ball to running back Franco Harris who ran up the middle. Cowboys safety Charlie Waters ends up colliding with umpire Art Demmas during the run, opening up the middle of the field, and contributing to Harris scoring the 22-yard touchdown.
Waters later recounted the play for an NFL documentary: “As I went to make the tackle, to fill the hole, I had a bead on Franco, and I was getting ready to make the tackle, and the official just backs into me and then the linemen wiped me out.” In The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, Fla.), Waters said, “I don’t know what I could do — maybe knock [Demmas] flat and maybe he’d knock Harris flat? Out safeties play a vital role in the run. That official gets in the way a lot. He screened me off.”
The NFL would make this type of collision less likely starting in 2010, when they moved the umpire to the offensive backfield for all but seven minutes of the game.
17. ‘I didn’t know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts’
Super Bowl XL
Steelers vs. Seahawks
February 5, 2006
Covering officials: R Bill Leavy, U Garth DeFelice, HL Mark Hittner, LJ Mark Perlman, FJ Steve Zimmer, SJ Bob Waggoner, BJ Tom Hill
Complaints about one-sided officiating have been around since perhaps the first intercollegiate game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869. Seahawks fans felt their team was victimized by “tacky-tack” or marginal calls at critical times that thwarted their chances at winning the Super Bowl XL. Coach Mike Holmgren, even addressed it at a fan rally, saying, “I didn’t know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well.”
Among the calls discussed as sportsradio became the Festivus Pole for the season’s dénouement:
- Seahawks receiver Daryl Jackson had a touchdown negated due to an offensive pass interference foul. While he had a very slight push-off, he, nonetheless, gained crucial separation in the end zone.
- At the two-minute warning in the second quarter, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for the end zone, head linesman Mark Hittner raised his hand to indicate a dead ball, then followed with a touchdown signal. Although it looks a little clunky, the delayed touchdown signal is overwhelmingly preferred over having to retract a touchdown signal. The replay was very close, and so the touchdown call stood.
- Steelers defensive lineman Clark Haggans seemed to be in near-perfect a few times anticipating the Seahawks snap, appearing to be offside on a few occasions. Clicking through frame-by-frame might reveal a slight jump before the ball moved, but that is obviously way too fine of a detail to call in real time. Haggans’ ability to time the snap also lead to a few holding calls against the Seahawks. Although commentator John Madden said on one replay that he didn’t see a hold, it does not mean there wasn’t one. The Seahawks offensive line was doing whatever they could to slow the attack.
The cacophony of complaints was enough to have NFL spokesman Greg Aiello address the issue two days later.
The game was properly officiated, including, as in most NFL games, some tight plays that produced disagreement about the calls made by the officials.
In an odd twist, it wasn’t the last word from the league on the officiating in this game. But, that will probably be another entry on this list …
NFL video (opens in an external window)
16. Cliff Harris taunt, Jack Lambert body slam
Super Bowl X
Steelers vs. Cowboys
January 18, 1976
Covering officials: LJ Jack Fette
Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers won this game 21-17, their dismal kicking game kept the Dallas Cowboys in the hunt. In the third quarter, kicker Roy Gerela missed a chipshot field goal. The Cowboys Cliff Harris celebrated the miss by patting Gerela on the head and I’m sure said something to the tune of “Thanks for missing another one.” Jack Lambert of the Steelers decided Harris was taking things too far, so he did what he thought was the sensible thing: he took Harris and threw him to the ground starting a short scuffle.
Referee Norm Schachter had already turned to the press box to signal the kick was no good. Line judge Jack Fette came running in to help restore order. Fette directed Lambert back to the sideline and, by looks of the film, was giving him a scolding. All that and the flag stayed in Fette’s pocket in a game that only saw two accepted penalties (call #36).
If that happens this Sunday, you can be sure there would be an offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct foul and personal fouls. Apparently, Fette believed he could get control without flags. While taunting could draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, it wasn’t explicitly stated in the rulebook until two years later. Maybe Fette thought Harris got what was coming to him and his hanky wasn’t needed. Thankfully, things got back under control.
Top image: Chad Young for Football Zebras.