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Beyond “Bottlegate”: How ugly incident didn’t define McAulay




Terry McAulay will lead a crew of excellent and distinguished officials in this year’s Super Bowl.  This will be his third Super Bowl (XXXIX, XLIII), umpire Carl Paganelli’s fourth (XXXIX, XLI, XLVI), and field judge Scott Steenson’s second (XXXI).  Even though it will be the first Super Bowl for the other four officials, their experience in the league ranges from 10 to 23 years; this is a very strong crew.

For an official to leave sportwriters and sportsjocks clamoring for any controversial call is the ultimate compliment. However, the one incident that is often recalled was not McAulay’s downfall; rather, it helped forge him as the unassuming paragon of poise and perfection.

The game was in Cleveland on December 16, 2001, between the Browns and the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars. McAulay was in his first year in the referee position, and Paganelli and Steenson were on his crew that day.  The Browns were trailing 15-10 late in the fourth quarter, but were attempting a game-winning drive.  Browns quarterback Tim Couch attempted a fourth-down pass to Quincy Morgan, and it was ruled complete on the field for a first down.  The Browns hurried up to the line and Couch quickly snapped and spiked the ball.  After the spike, the McAulay got on the microphone and said that the replay official had signaled for a review through his electronic pager prior to the snap of the spike play (video).

McAulay reviewed the play and announced that the Morgan catch was incomplete and that the Jaguars would take over on downs.  Browns fans went into an uproar and began throwing plastic bottles onto the field in protest.  Due to the unsafe conditions, McAulay decided to end the game with 48 seconds left on the clock. (Commissioner Paul Tagliabue ordered the game be completed  — which wound up being a couple of kneel-down plays in a near-empty stadium.)

This incident — dubbed “Bottlegate” — received significant press at the time and now seems to be making a comeback with the appointment of McAulay to Super Bowl XLVIII.  However, you can’t really blame McAulay, much less define his career by Bottlegate, and here’s why:

  • Replay buzzed prior to the snap.  It does not matter how long it takes the officials to react and stop play, the fact is that since replay buzzed prior to the play where Couch spiked the ball, that play never took place.  Consider what happens when the play clock runs out.  If there is a delay of game foul, the play will never count in that circumstance, even if the ball is snapped before the back judge can whistle the play dead.
  • Couch’s pass was incomplete.  When he reviewed the replay, McAulay correctly reversed the call on the field to an incomplete pass.  This ruling was unpopular, but it was correct nonetheless.
  • There was little he could have changed.  While he could have taken more control over the chaos that ensued – and if this happened today he would likely have never lost control in the first place – nothing was going to erase the frustrations of the Browns fans that day.  Cleveland sports have been so close to success for so long, only to see each opportunity fade away and the frustration levied that day reflected that.  The only way that the situation could truly have been squelched would have been if the pass had been ruled incomplete on the field.
  • McAulay’s record since Bottlegate is above reproach.  In the last twelve seasons, McAulay has had playoff assignments in nine seasons, working a conference championship game or Super Bowl in each of those seasons.  That means in nine of the last twelve seasons, McAulay has rated at or near the very top among all referees.
  • McAulay is one of the best game managers in the NFL.  He is always in control of his crew and the game, ensuring that everything moves along quickly and efficiently.  His games frequently last under three hours, and he is unwavering in moving on the course of action he believes is right in all circumstances.

McAulay, a native of Louisiana, was interviewed by the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2009 and he said of Bottlegate, “Absolutely it was something no one should ever have to go through, but I wouldn’t be the guy I am today if I didn’t learn from it. … So Cleveland, obviously I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’m not sure I’d take it back. Because if it hadn’t happened, would I have just worked my second Super Bowl? Maybe not”. 

Or his third Super Bowl.

Image: American Athletic Conference