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.
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.
We’re counting them down, until we reach Number 1. Now … on with the countdown.
Super Bowl I
Packers vs. Chiefs
January 15, 1967
Covering official: R Norm Schachter
The first Super Bowl was jointly televised by CBS and NBC, each having a broadcast contract with the two participating leagues. CBS provided the video feed to NBC for logistical reasons, and NBC used its announcers on their telecast. The acrimony between the two network crews got so bad during the week that a chain-link fence was erected to physically separate the production trucks.
Despite having two networks broadcast the game, neither CBS nor NBC archived the videotape of the game, as tape was very expensive and storage was also a cost factor. While private recordings have pieced together parts of the telecast, the league has not agreed on the purchase price with one collector who has most of the game on videotape. (NFL Network used film and radio recordings to re-create a telecast this year.)
The second half kickoff was in the air when referee Norm Schachter blew his whistle. There are differing accounts as to why, but the bottom line is that NBC was not ready for the kickoff. One explanation was that they were in commercial. Another legend says that the network was interviewing Bob Hope on the sideline about his upcoming special. The latter is more poetic: Hope was the very embodiment of the NBC company man, and it would be fitting that the inaugural Super Bowl, played in Hollywood, had to defer to Hollywood — a foreshadowing of the entertainment spectacle that it would become. Either way, the old, stodgy NFL — in its first game against the upstart and flashy AFL — was being ushered into a era of sports television, as opposed to sporting events that happened to be televised.
So, until next time, this is Bob “Super Bowl” Hope saying, if you don’t kick it again now, you’ll be kicking yourself later.
— Ben Austro
Super Bowl XLVII
Ravens vs. 49ers
February 3, 2013
Covering officials: Jerome Boger’s crew
While things may not go according to plan for either team in the Super Bowl, the logistics of showcasing America’s premier sporting event have largely gone without a hitch. The planning of every detail is a process that begins years before, and when something goes wrong, it is glaring.
In the second half, a relay device that was responsible for maintaining power in case of an electrical feeder cable failure failed itself, plunging the Superdome into partial darkness. The television booth also lost power, leaving CBS without announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms to explain why the music was abruptly playing them off to a commercial break.
Referee Jerome Boger and his crew immediately recorded the game time, status of the clock (running), down, first-down line, and the yard line and hashmark of the spot of the ball at the point of the power outage. While the commissioner’s appointed representative takes the lead in an emergency situation, the crew must treat this as any other timeout, keeping player and bench personnel from unnecessarily milling around on the field. It also meant that player warmups were to be confined generally to the sideline, while the officials had to make sure they stayed limber.
Upon getting the go-ahead, teams were given approximately 15 minutes to get ready, after which Boger announced, “We’re now ready to resume action. Let’s go.” Boger signaled the play and game clocks to wind, and at that point, the officials must dial themselves back into the game as if the interruption never happened.
— Ben Austro
NFL video (opens in an external window)
Super Bowl XVIII
Washington vs. Raiders
January 22, 1984
Covering official: HL Jerry Bergman Sr.
After punting the ball after a three-and-out in its last two possessions, Washington found itself in yet another fourth down situation as the end of the third quarter neared. This time Washington quarterback Joe Theismann handed the ball to fullback John Riggins. Riggins ran the ball over the left tackle and was tackled close to the first down.
Head linesman Jerry Bergman, Sr., officiating in his third Super Bowl, marked the ball short of the line to gain resulting in a turnover on downs. The Raiders would take over at their own 22-yard line.
Super Bowl MVP running back Marcus Allen made quick work of the Washington defense, rushing for 78-yard touchdown on first down. In an NFL documentary, Allen remarked, “At the time like that, it was pure magic. It was beautiful.” The Raiders would end up defeating Washington by a score of 38—9. — Marcus Griep
NFL video (opens in an external window)
Super Bowl XLIII
Steelers vs. Cardinals
February 1, 2009
Covering official: U Roy Ellison
Super Bowl XLIII was one of the most exciting and most penalized Super Bowls in history. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals combined for 18 penalties for 162 yards, both of which are the second highest totals in Super Bowl history. Leading 20-14 with 3:04 remaining in the game, Pittsburgh was facing 3rd & 10 from inside their own 1 yard line. On the play, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed a pass to Santonio Holmes at the 21 yard line for a first down. However, center Justin Hartwig was flagged for holding by umpire Roy Ellison, and since the foul occurred in the end zone the enforcement resulted a safety for Arizona.
Had Hartwig not been called for holding, the Steelers would have likely compelled Arizona to take their remaining time outs and may have been able to completely run out the clock. Instead the Cardinals got the ball back down 20-16. They quickly scored a touchdown to take a 23-20 lead before Holmes’ spectacular touchdown catch clinched the game for the Steelers.
This was the first safety in a Super Bowl since Bruce Smith sacked Jeff Hostetler in Super Bowl XXV, and the first ever safety by penalty in a Super Bowl.
— David Root
36. Fewest flags fly (2)
Super Bowl X
Steelers vs. Cowboys
January 18, 1976
Covering officials: Norm Schachter’s crew
Referee Norm Schachter was going out in style. After a 22-year career, he had officiated three of the first 10 Super Bowls. He decided to go out on top and retire after the Cowboys-Steelers tilt.
Schachter had a new toy to play with that day. The NFL had been experimenting with putting a mic on the referee so the entire stadium could hear penalty announcements. The mic made it’s official debut in Super Bowl X. The following season, all referees would wear the mic in all games.
Schachter was ready. America would hear his voice during the game for the first time. One problem. His crew didn’t give him much of a chance to use the new technology. The crew called a total of two fouls the entire day. Schachter only got to use the new toy twice all day and then rode off into the sunset to conclude a brilliant on-field career (he would be an observer for the next several seasons).— Mark Schultz
Top image: Chad Young for Football Zebras. Additional photo credits: #40. NBC, #39. Ben Leibenberg/NFL. #36 Football Zebras file, NFL statistics/Pro Football Hall of Fame