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’ve cracked the Top 30. Which call will be number one?
Super Bowl XVII
Washington vs. Dolphins
January 30, 1983
Covering officials: R Jerry Markbreit, HL Dale Hamer
Super Bowl 50 referee Clete Blakeman has elite company with his divisional playoff non-flipping coin: the venerable Jerry Markbreit.
Every year, the NFL mints a new coin for the Super Bowl. The design elements change from year to year, but the options, heads or tails, remain the same. The Super Bowl XVII coin featured a design with two players and the profile of a man on one side (heads) and two helmets with the Vince Lombardi Trophy on reverse (tails). This design led to some confusion during the coin toss, as the Dolphins called tails, and the coin landed on the side with two helmets.
Markbreit turned to the Washington captain, quarterback Joe Theismann, and said, “Heads; you win the toss.” Former Los Angeles Rams running back Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, who flipped the coin, noticed that the coin had actually landed on tails, and pointed this out to Markbreit. After conferring with head linesman Dale Hamer, Markbreit corrected the mistake and gave the Dolphins the first option. The Dolphins chose to receive, but would go on to lose the game. (To alleviate confusion for special coins used in the 2015 season for Super Bowl 50, the letter T appears on the tails side.)
After the game, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle came to the officials’ locker room and told Markbreit, “Once you got past the coin toss, you did fine.”
Super Bowl XXXVII
Buccaneers vs. Raiders
January 26, 2003
Covering official: R Bill Carollo
Replay was instituted as an officiating tool in the 1986 season, but due to technical problems and long delays, it was shelved after the 1991 season. It was reinstituted in 1999 under the challenge system. In Super Bowl XXXVII, a coach’s challenge resulted in a reversal to a touchdown for the first time in the history of the big game.
Trailing 34-3 in the third quarter, Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon heaved a deep pass to Jerry Porter who caught the ball at the end line, but was ruled to have caught the ball out of bounds. Raiders coach Bill Callahan challenged the call, and replays showed that Porter was able to drag his second foot in bounds, although it was questionable if Porter had secured control of the ball. Referee Bill Carollo reversed the call to a touchdown catch.
It is doubtful that today the play would be ruled a catch, likely to be categorized as “call stands.” Although the movement of the ball in a player’s hand does not automatically indicate a loss of control, the centralized replay era tends to classify a play such as this as inconclusive evidence of control.
The touchdown was the first of three in a vain comeback attempt by the Raiders, as the Buccaneers widened the lead late in the fourth quarter on two interception returns for touchdowns.
28. Saints get 2-pt conversion in replay on go-ahead TD
Super Bowl XLIV
Saints vs. Colts
February 7, 2010
Covering officials: LJ Jeff Seeman, R Scott Green
The two-point conversion creates an unusual loophole in the replay rules. Since it functions just as any other scrimmage down, the replay official can initate a booth review to take away two points, but cannot review to put two points on the board, unless it occurs after the two-minute warning or if a turnover is somehow part of the attempt.
After taking a five-point lead on a Jeremy Shockey touchdown in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints opted to go for the two-point conversion. Quarterback Drew Brees connected with receiver Lance Moore at the goal line, but it was ruled incomplete. Saints coach Sean Payton challenged the call.
In replay, it was a matter of when the process of the catch was complete. There was no doubt that Moore crossed the plane of the goal line, but he must maintain control to the ground. When slowed down considerably, the ball in the outstretched hands of Moore is firmly gripped as he goes to the ground. Colts defender Jacob Lacey knocked the ball out with his leg, but this was after the catch process was deemed complete, giving the Saints the 2-point play.
Super Bowl IX
Steelers vs. Vikings
January 12, 1975
Covering official: R Bernie Ullman
It just wasn’t the Vikings’ day. Even a lucky play for Fran Tarkenton was wiped out by the rules. Tarkenton had a pass batted by linebacker L.C. Greenwood of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Steel Curtain defense and the ball landed right back in the quarterback’s hand. Tarkenton then uncorked a 41-yard pass to John Gilliam.
But in the backfield, referee Bernie Ulman tossed his flag. It was and is against the rules for a quarterback to throw two forward passes during one play — even if the first pass was tipped by the defense. At the time, the penalty for a second forward pass from behind the line of scrimmage had the net effect of an incomplete pass: no yards and a loss of down. Today, there is a 5-yard penalty, but no loss of down, as long as the illegal pass is behind the line of scrimmage.
I would guess Bernie Ulman never saw a double-pass-tipped-by-the-defense play, until the Super Bowl. Kudos to him for knowing the rule and enforcing it correctly.
Super Bowl VII
Dolphins vs. Washington
January 14, 1973
Covering officials: R Tommy Bell, HL Tony Veteri Sr.
You’ve seen it many times on the blooper reel and, arguably, it was the most memorable play of Super Bowl VII. The Dolphins in command and pitching a shutout late in the game, send in the field goal unit to extend the lead to 17-0. The kick is blocked right back into the hands of Dolphins’ kicker Garo Yepremian. Yepremian scrambled to his right and tried to pass the ball, the ball slipped out of his hands and inexplicably, he batted the ball in the air. The ball was caught by a Washington defender who motored for a touchdown.
First of all, was it a pass or fumble? If the ball had hit the ground, it would have been a major call to rule a fumble or an incomplete pass (with a turnover on downs). But for referee Tommy Bell it was moot when it was caught in midair by the defense. In my opinion it was fumble all the way. The ball slipped of out the kicker’s hands.
You might notice that once the Washington defender began his return, Bell pivoted into reverse mechanics to beat the ball carrier to the goal line, but he slipped and fell. Head linesman Tony Veteri Sr. covered for Bell, found high gear, and chased the play all the way to the end zone.
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Top image: Chad Young for Football Zebras. Other images: #30. NBC Sports/NFL.