Football Zebras
NewsReferee Pete Morelli will retire after 22 seasons

Referee Pete Morelli will retire after 22 seasons

Pete Morelli, a veteran NFL official who served for 22 seasons, will retire from the league at the conclusion of the season.

Morelli began his officiating career in 1971. He progressed from the high school level to officiating in the Big West and Western Athletic Conferences.  Morelli was then hired by the league in 1997 as a back judge and wore number 135. He became a field judge the following season when the two positions swapped titles, and was then promoted to referee in the 2003 season, along with Walt Anderson, to replace retirees Bob McElwee and Dick Hantak.

Morelli, 67, worked 16 postseason games, which included 7 Wild Card Playoffs, 6 Divisional Playoffs, 2 Conference Championships, and Super Bowl XXXVI, as the field judge on referee Bernie Kukar’s crew. In only his fifth year in the league, Morelli was assigned to the Super Bowl in his first year of eligiblity, and he had the honor of signaling the winning field goal as time expired (video). He was the alternate referee on Ron Torbert’s crew for this season’s Divisional Playoff between the Chargers and Patriots. His last on-field playoff assignment was the 2016 Divisional Playoff between the Texans and Patriots.

In a Week 11, 2007, matchup between the Browns and Ravens in Baltimore, Morelli and his crew correctly handled one of the oddest final plays in recent history (video). A field goal attempt by Cleveland’s Phil Dawson hit the left upright, came down to hit the stanchion of the goalpost behind the crossbar, and bounced back into the end zone. While the kick was initially ruled no good, Morelli attempted to review the play using instant replay, only to be told by replay assistant Howard Slavin that the play was not reviewable. After a lengthy conversation Morelli had with field judge Jim Saracino and back judge Keith Ferguson, they correctly ruled that the field goal was good. Now, as a result, if a similar play were to occur, it would be reviewable under the rules of the instant replay casebook.

In the 2014 Wild Card Playoff between the Lions and Cowboys, while it was not his call, Morelli came under fire for a pass interference flag pickup late in the game. Back judge Lee Dyer threw a flag on Dallas for pass interference, and Morelli announced the penalty. Following that, head linesman (down judge) Jerry Bergman offered the view from his vantage point that the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference. Dyer accepted the call from the alternate angle, and then Morelli had to re-announce the change. We reported back in 2015 after the game that most of Morelli’s announcement to pick up the flag was indistinguishable, however, since then his announcement has been discerned as, “There is no foul on the play for pass interference; the defender did not make contact.” In a pool report following the game, Morelli did admit that the whole process would have been smoother if the crew got together to make one announcement, but defended Bergman’s call of faceguarding, saying he had the best view.

A petition in 2017 was created to prevent Morelli from officiating Philadelphia Eagles games, after a game where his crew called ten fouls on the Eagles and just one on their opponents, Carolina. We supported Morelli, as did NFL Referees’ Association president and former referee Scott Green, who stated that the petition’s creator’s “attempts to sensationalize statistics and create click-bait headlines lack important context.” While Morelli was never found for any wrongdoing in the game, the 77,000 petition signers got their wish, as Morelli did not work another Eagles game for the next season and a half of his career.

On the lighter side, during a 2017 Broncos-49ers preseason game, Morelli’s crew threw 6 flags — and a hat! — on a single punt down. Morelli couldn’t contain his laughter as he ran off the list of 4 Broncos penalties and a 49ers penalty, and “with all that, it’s an offset.”

Morelli lives in Stockton, Calif., and worked as a teacher and administrator at Saint Mary’s High School in Stockton for 33 years, before retiring as president of the school in 2017. He was the principal of the school from 1989 until 2014, and even shared a touching moment with one of his former students, then-Buccaneers running back Doug Martin, on the field in the 2014 season in Tampa Bay. Morelli was also a full-time official.

Morelli was awarded the prestigious Art McNally Award at the 2015 Pro Bowl, which recognizes an official for “exemplary professionalism, leadership and commitment to sportsmanship on and off the field.” He was the first active on-field official to be awarded this honor since 2009, when back judge Bill Schmitz — on Morelli’s crew that year — won the award during his final season. No active official has won the award since Morelli did.

Morelli will co-lead the Pro Bowl crew with other retiree Walt Coleman. Steve Stelljes, Morelli’s down judge for three years, will also retire following the all-star game in Orlando.

With the retirement of Morelli and Coleman, and the four referees that left last season, it means that the 2019 season will have at least 6 crew chiefs in either their first or second season.

Cameron Filipe
Cameron Filipe
Cam Filipe is a junior at the University of New Haven, majoring in forensic science. He has been involved in football officiating for seven years and currently works as a flag football official in college. This is his fourth season covering NFL officiating for Football Zebras.

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