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50 Super Bowl calls

50 Super Bowl calls, Part 4: XX to XI

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 are more than halfway to number 1. Here is Part 4.



⇐ #20-16

15. James Harrison’s goal-to-goal pick-6

Super Bowl XLIII
Steelers vs. Cardinals
February 1, 2009
Covering official: LJ Mark Perlman

The Arizona Cardinals were poised to at least tie the Steelers with the ball at the 1-yard line with 18 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner attempted to quickly connect with Anquan Boldin at the goal line, but Steelers linebacker James Harrison read the play and intercepted the ball. Harrison used up the entire clock to go from goal line to goal line, finally being dragged down as he collapsed in the Cardinals end zone. The 100-yard return is a Super Bowl record.

Although he would get some support from the middle of the field from referee Terry McAulay and head linesman Derrick Bowers, line judge Mark Perlman essentially had responsibility for the runback. Perlman trailed Harrison to make sure he remained in bounds while dodging several blocks and missed tackles in his path. Had the play developed further towards the middle of the field, Perlman would ideally arrive at the goal line prior to Harrison, but on this play, such a maneuver would put him right in the mix of the play. The touchdown call was upheld in replay, although Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald made it a very tight call on the tackle.

During the return, there was a facemask penalty on the Cardinals. Had Fitzgerald been successful in tackling Harrison short of the end zone, the Steelers would have had one untimed down due to the penalty. (The team on offense changes mid-play for purposes of this rule.) On the other hand, if replay reversed the touchdown, the reversal would have adjusted the clock to 1 or 2 seconds — the time when Harrison is ruled down — or to a time when he hypothetically steps out of bounds. Neither was necessary, and the foul was essentially vacated: the penalty could not be applied to the third-quarter kickoff (under the rules of the day), nor could the quarter be extended for a post-touchdown kickoff.— Ben Austro

NFL video (opens in an external window)

14. Intentional grounding, the hard way

Super Bowl XLVI
Giants vs. Patriots
February 5, 2012
Covering official: BJ Tony Steratore, R John Parry

Tom Brady at the New England Patriots took the field at their own 6 yard line for their first play from scrimmage. While Brady was in the pocket in the end zone he came under pressure, and to avoid being sacked he heaved the ball downfield to about the 45 yard line where there were no players in the area. Back Judge Tony Steratore quickly informed referee John Parry that the pass was well beyond all eligible receivers. Parry made the call on the other components of the penalty — quarterback in the pocket and under immediate threat of a sack — and threw his flag for intentional grounding.

When a quarterback is in the pocket, he can only avoid intentional grounding by throwing the ball to an area occupied by an eligible receiver. How short — or far — the pass travels does not matter. Since the foul occurred in the end zone, the penalty resulted in a safety for the New York Giants.

It is very rare for a quarterback to be called for intentional grounding on a pass thrown over 40 yards, or for it to be in the jurisdiction of the back judge, but the Super Bowl XLVI crew quickly and correctly worked together to enforce this foul.— David Root

NFL video (opens in an external window)

13. Missed 10-second runoff allows Bears to pad score

Super Bowl XLIX
Bears vs. Patriots
January 26, 1986
Covering officials: R Red Cashion, LJ Bama Glass, HL Dale Williams

The Chicago Bears had been dominating the New England Patriots for much of the first half. With under a minute to go, the Bears were in the red zone. A run by quarterback Jim McMahon with about 16 seconds remaining came up just short of the goal line. The Bears attempted to run a quick play that would stop the clock, but the Patriots were using stall tactics that drew retaliatory action from the Bears, further exacerbating the delay to get the ball ready for play. Seeing that time would run out, the Bears snapped the ball and threw an incomplete pass stopping the clock with three seconds left.

But there was a problem. Referee Red Cashion had not blown the ball ready for play and none of the officials were in position. Also, the Bears were not set. Cashion penalized the Bears five yards. The Bears lined up and kicked a field goal, extending their lead going into halftime.

But, there still was a problem. Cashion’s crew forgot to run 10 seconds off of the clock. The rule stipulates that if the offense commits a snap foul that causes the clock to stop in the last two minutes of a half, there will be a 10-second runoff. If the crew had applied that rule, the half would have been over and the Bears would not have scored a field goal. In the grand scheme of things, it was a moot point as the Bears dominated the day, but still, the officials didn’t apply a rule correctly.

After the game, when Cashion learned of his error, he was so distraught that he refused to go to any after-parties or take part in any post-game festivities. Instead he rented a car and drove straight from New Orleans back to his Texas home by himself.— Mark Schultz

12. Two words: Leon Lett

Super Bowl XXVII
Cowboys vs. Bills
January 31, 1993
Covering officials: HL Ron Phares, LJ Dick McKenzie, R Dick Hantak

In the fourth quarter with the game well in hand, the Cowboys defensive lineman Jim Jeffcoat sacked Bills quarterback Frank Reich causing Reich to fumble the ball. Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett was there to scoop the loose ball and began a 64-yard runback for an apparent touchdown that would add the icing the Cowboys Super Bowl cake.

As Lett began showboating near the goal line, Bills wide receiver Don Beebe streamed in from behind and knocked the ball free. The loose ball rolled out of bounds through the end zone. In reverse mechanics, referee Dick Hantak has goal line responsibility, and head linesman Ron Phares and line judge Dick McKenzie were trailing the play trying to keep up with Beebe over the 64-yard return.

Plays like this can be extremely difficult to cover well as the officials are racing to try and get in position. Hantak’s crew did not have the benefit of replay either, as the rule had not been renewed for the 1992 season. Huddling together, Hantak conferred with Phares and McKenzie before ruling that Lett had lost control of the ball before crossing the goal line resulting in a touchback for the Bills.— Marcus Griep

11. Duane Thomas fumbles near the goal line … or did he?

Super Bowl V
Cowboys vs. Colts
January 17, 1971
Covering official: LJ Jack Fette

The Dallas Cowboys had the ball second and goal from the Baltimore Colts two-yard line. A touchdown here could have possibly given the Cowboys an insurmountable lead. Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton handed the ball off the Duane Thomas. The officials ruled he fumbled the ball and awarded possession to the Colts’ defense. Here is where things got confusing.

First of all, Cowboys tight end Mike Ditka insisted that Thomas put the ball on the ground and the play was over. Furthermore, Cowboys center Dave Manders claims he had possession of the loose ball at the bottom of the pile, but Colts defender Billy Ray Smith screamed that he had the ball. How this actually occurred on the field remains a mystery, but line judge Jack Fette — working the first of a record five Super Bowls — awarded possession to the Colts.

Manders pleaded his case, but to no avail. He recalled in a 1993 interview with The Baltimore Sun, “I handed Fette the ball. Craig Morton and I argued, but he told us, ‘One more word and you two are out of the game.’ “

It would have been nice to have instant replay to sort this one out, but the first version of that technology was 15 years in the future. Instead we have both teams claiming to be in the right.— Mark Schultz


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