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50 Super Bowl calls

50 Super Bowl calls, Part 2: XL to XXXI

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.



⇐ #40-36

35. Interleague rules slightly more complicated than designated hitter

Super Bowls I—IV
Responsible parties: NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, AFL president Milt Woodard

spalding aflWhen the American Football League agreed to merge with the NFL on June 9, 1966, the two leagues agreed to an annual interleague championship game before the merger was to be completed in 1970. Although the Super Bowl annals have rearranged the records to suit the current interconference format, in reality the Super Bowl was not played for the NFL title. What are now the conference championship games were the league title games, with each playing for the World Championship, similar to the nominally separate leagues of Major League Baseball playing in the World Series.

Other than preseason matchups, there were only four interleague games between the AFL and NFL. Just as the designated-hitter rule in baseball’s National League is not adopted by the American League, the two football leagues had to agree on settling some differences for these World Championship games.

  • Two-point conversions. The AFL adopted the two-point conversion rule that was in college since 1958. However, the two-point play was not in effect for the Super Bowl — making any end-zone conversions one point only — until the NFL adopted the rule in 1994.
  • Game balls. The two leagues used different game balls, so when the NFL was on offense, they used a Wilson football (“the Duke”); when the AFL was on offense, they used the slightly narrower and longer Spalding J5-V ball. (This provision was actually added to the NFL rulebook temporarily.)
  • Scoreboard clock. The NFL kept the official time on the field, while the AFL used the scoreboard clock. For the pre-merger Super Bowls, the scoreboard clock was official, which became the standard for the merged NFL in 1970.
  • Mixed officiating crews. The current side judge position had not yet been created, so each league sent three officials to work on the six-man crew. A modified uniform was used for the first two games, as the AFL used orange-striped shirts for their officials. While somewhat different from the NFL’s design, the Super Bowl uniforms were standard black and white. This was done for the first two Super Bowls; the AFL adopted the NFL uniform in 1968, in anticipation of the merger.

In 1970, the new AFC was fully conforming to the merged NFL’s rulebook.

— Ben Austro

34. Andre Reed draws unsportsmanlike conduct foul for slamming helmet

Super Bowl XXVI
Washington vs. Bills
January 26, 1992
Covering official: FJ Ed Merrifield

Bills receiver Andre Reed was convinced that Washington free safety Brad Edwards had interfered with him. Reed did not see a flag, and he slammed his helmet to the turf in frustration. Then he saw a flag.

While a case can certainly be made for defensive pass interference, Edwards was generally at the target area of the pass, and he is equally entitled to the ball. If a player does not have position on the ball, he may not gain that position by deliberately plowing through the opponent. As Edwards approached the ball, he even moves away from Reed for about a step or two, and both players converged on roughly the same space together. Field judge Ed Merrifield ruled the contact incidental — no pass interference on either player.

Slamming the headgear to the ground, though, is an unsportsmanlike conduct foul. (Washington linebacker Wilber Marshall helpfully pointed out the stray helmet to Merrifield who had already passed Reed.) It is a dead-ball foul, which means the third-down incompletion counts, and the 15 yards is added to the fourth down. Rather than line up for a long field goal at the end of the half, the Bills were forced to punt.

An irate coach Marv Levy confronted the officials as the left the field, and is clearly seen shouting “You’ve been bought!” to Merrifield.   — Ben Austro

33. Tebucky Jones 97-yd fumble return negated by penalty

Super Bowl XXXVI
Patriots vs. Rams
February 3, 2002
Covering official: HL Mark Hittner

The Rams were down 17-3 with 10 ½ minutes remaining in the game. With a 4th-and-goal on the 3, the Rams attempted to go for the touchdown to close the gap, rather than settling for a field goal.

Flushed out of the pocket with no receiving options, Rams quarterback Kurt Warner made a run for the end zone, but fumbled the ball near the goal line. Patriots defensive back Tebucky Jones scooped up the ball and ran 97 yards for a touchdown.

Jones did not get his Super Bowl score, as linebacker Willie McGinest had engaged Rams running back Marshall Faulk too much and was penalized for defensive holding. This took one of the potential receivers out of play, which lead to the scramble, the fumble, and the return. It almost seemed that McGinest was playing Faulk as if he was the ball carrier, unaware that Faulk was running a pass route. Whatever the circumstances, it not only wiped out the Patriots touchdown, but it also wiped out the fourth-down stop by the defense. The Rams were given an automatic first down, and scored a touchdown a few plays later — in essence, a 14-point swing in short order. Rather than putting the Rams in a deep hole in the fourth quarter, they were able to tie it, which ended with a thrilling conclusion of a Patriots walk-off field goal. It was the first time the game-winning score came on the last play of a Super Bowl game.— Ben Austro

32. Rod Smith penalized for an invalid fair catch signal

Super Bowl XXXII
Broncos vs. Packers
January 25, 1998
Covering official: FJ Don Dorkowski

rodsmith_invalid_fcsignalOn a third quarter punt, Broncos receiver Rod Smith appeared to call for a fair catch. Field judge Don Dorkowski dropped his beanbag at the catch spot and blew his whistle to avoid inadvertent contact. Then, he threw a flag.

While Smith did put his hand over his head, the fair-catch signal must be a side-to-side motion. Smith did not put his hand straight up and straight down, but there was very little waving to the side. This was ruled an invalid fair-catch signal by Dorkowski.

The referee’s hand signal for an invalid fair-catch signal is to generally gesture a legal fair-catch signal, which a comparatively svelte Ed Hochuli did during his announcement.

Dorkowski, incidentally, was not scheduled to work the Super Bowl, as he just worked a Conference Championship game two weeks earlier. The field judge was supposed to be John Robison, but a minor controversy over a sideline call in a Wild Card game caused the league to reconsider the decision before Robison was formally assigned to the game. The revoked assignment became apparent when Robison’s name appeared in the preprinted Super Bowl programs.— Ben Austro

31. Jermaine Kearse circus catch

Super Bowl XLIX
Patriots vs. Seahawks
February 1, 2015
Covering official: SJ Tom Hill

kearse catch xlix

It was surely going to be the play that everyone was going to be talking about, but that quickly turned out to not be the case. Subsequent playcalling notwithstanding, it was an incredible effort by both receiver and official.

Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse never lost concentration on the ball to make a spectacular reception near the sideline. Side judge Tom Hill similarly did not lose concentration. The bobbled ball deflected off of his legs, which he then pulled in for a completed catch. This would be an illegal kick if he deliberately kicked the ball into the air, but it is abundantly clear that was not the case.

When Kearse caught the ball, he was able to get up and gain an extra yard before going out of bounds, because Hill did not rule Kearse was down by contact. With all of the moving parts on this play, this is the correct call. If the defensive contact occurs before the ball arrives, then the defensive contact is ignored for the purposes of downing the receiver. In this case, all of the defensive contact occurs before Kearse has secured the pass in flight.

Hill astutely gave Kearse the ability to stop the clock by going out of bounds, even though the Seahawks had to take a timeout to avoid a delay of game. The effort was for naught, as the Patriots sealed the victory by intercepting the ball at the goal line. — Ben Austro

Additional photo credits: #35. Legendary Auctions, #32. NBC Sports/NFL, #31. Ben Liebenberg/NFL

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