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, attain 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.
Jerry Seeman, the venerable head of officiating in the 1990s, had a sign in his office with his number-one commandment in officiating: Make Super Bowl calls only, no Woolworth calls. He explained this pertained to all calls throughout the year, saying, “That means it’s got to be big. If it’s a call that could determine a Super Bowl, call it. I don’t want Woolworth calls, nickel and dime kind of stuff.”
In many cases, the officials that are involved with making the calls in the Super Bowl agree; there is nothing that makes a Super Bowl call different than any other call. While officiating philosophy dictates that for self-preservation, it is an inescapable fact that there are snap judgments being made by each of the officials on the 120 or so plays in every Super Bowl, all of which can have an effect on which team’s name is engraved on the Vince Lombardi trophy.
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.
With that, we begin our list of 50 Super Bowl calls with the first ten.
Super Bowl XLVIII
Seahawks vs. Broncos
February 2, 2014
Covering official: R Terry McAulay
For the Super Bowl, everything is big. If there is something that is not big, there will be a concerted effort to make that little thing a big thing.
The opening coin toss is a matter that is usually not televised for the preceding 255 games in the season. But for the Super Bowl, there is a massive collection of still, video, and film cameras, honorary captains, a celebrity figure to toss the coin, and numerous other VIPs. It is such a big deal, that this routine event is rehearsed the night before closed off to members of the media and nonessential personnel.
No amount of rehearsal would have prepared referee Terry McAulay for his quick action to correct an oversight. Joe Namath, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Jets, had the honor of tossing the coin. Whether Namath jumped the signal or McAulay gave the cue too soon, the commemorative coin fluttered, and McAulay lunged to catch it out of midair. The Seahawks had not yet declared their choice. (Even if the Seahawks called heads or tails with the coin in the air, McAulay would have voided the toss before it hit the ground. The choice must be made prior to the toss.)
NFL video (opens in an external window)
Super Bowl V
Colts vs. Cowboys
January 17, 1971
Covering officials: U Paul Trepinski, HL Ed Marion, LJ Jack Fette
Late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were moving the ball, when Norm Schachter’s crew whistled the Cowboys for offensive holding on a sack of quarterback Craig Morton (penalty flag is in the left part of the photo). Back then holding was a whopping 15-yard penalty from the dead-ball spot. The sack occurred nine yards behind the line of scrimmage, so when Schachter finished his walk-off, the Cowboys lost 24 yards on one penalty.
The next play was 2nd-and-35, and the Cowboys were intercepted by Colts linebacker Mike Curtis, setting up the drive that culminated with the winning field goal with seconds remaining.
If you are going to make a big, drive-sustaining or drive-killing call in the Super Bowl, you’d better be sure. Although video of the play is elusive, knowing the strong personalities that made up the Super Bowl V crew, I’m sure the call was there.
Super Bowl XVIII
Raiders vs. Washington
January 22, 1984
Covering officials: R Gene Barth, SJ Gil Mace
Having won Super Bowl XVII, Washington came into the game hoping to repeat as Super Bowl champions. Those hopes were put in jeopardy early on as Washington was unable to move the ball during their first possession and were forced to punt from their own 30-yard line. The punt by Jeff Haynes was blocked by Derrick Jensen.
The loose ball headed in the direction of referee Gene Barth. As the ball bounced toward the end zone, reverse mechanics come into play, and Barth was responsible for making any calls with relation to the goal line while simultaneously staying out of the ball’s path and the oncoming rush. Jensen would follow the ball and recover it just as it bounced over the goal line, giving the Raiders their first of five touchdowns on the day.
Washington’s second drive of the day started off no better, as they were again forced to punt after a three-and-out possession. This time, Washington punter Jeff Haynes was able to get the punt away. Downfield, Raiders cornerback Ted Watts had his back turned to the ball and was blocking when the punted ball bounced off his elbow. The loose ball was recovered by Washington. Side judge Gil Mace ruled that Raiders cornerback Ted Watts had not been blocked into the punt. This meant that Watts’ touching of the kick gave Washington legal possession and a new set of downs. Washington failed to capitalize on their good fortune. After advancing to the Raiders’ 27-yard line, kicker Mark Moseley missed the 44-yard field goal wide to the left.
NFL video (opens in an external window)
Super Bowl XXII
Washington vs. Broncos
January 22, 1984
Covering official: R Bob McElwee
The Broncos started off strong in Super Bowl XXII, scoring a touchdown and a field goal to go up 10–0 early in the first quarter. On the kickoff following that field goal, Washington kick returner Ricky Sanders caught the kick and returned it 15 yards before Broncos special teamer Ken Bell delivered a hit that knocked the ball loose.
Initially, in the scramble to recover the football the Broncos appeared to have recovered the ball, but when referee Bob McElwee announced the call, it was Washington who had recovered the fumble. The NFL Films highlight film shows several fans yelling, “Replay! Replay! We want a replay!”
Replay did not have a view of the actual recovery, however, as the cameras lost view of the ball as it disappeared beneath the pile, so Washington recovery was upheld. This ended up being a turning point in the game. The Broncos didn’t score for the rest of the game, while Washington scored 35 points in the second quarter, going on to win 42–10.
Super Bowl IV
Chiefs vs. Vikings
January 11, 1970
Covering official: R John McDonough
NFL Films scored a coup for Super Bowl IV, as Chiefs coach Hank Stram was the first head coach who agreed to be wired for sound during the big game, and Stram didn’t disappoint.
Late in the game, the ball was close to the line to gain close to the Chiefs sideline. Stram’s microphone picked up a cacophony of noise as he and others were lobbying for a first down while some Vikings players were lobbying for a short spot. Referee John McDonough called for the chains. In the crush of players and coaches, the chain didn’t straighten out at first as someone was standing on the links. The Chiefs got excited, thinking they had a first down, but McDonough ordered the chains to stretched properly. The Chiefs still had a first down, prompting Stram to compliment the officials saying, “Ya marked it good! You do a helluva job!”
During a crucial measurement for a first down, it is vital for the referee to take charge of the situation to make sure the spot is secured, the chains are stretched properly and there is a fair measurement. This has to be done while everyone is arguing their case so it requires concentration. McDonough took command of the situation like a veteran referee should.
Top image: Chad Young