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.
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.
With that, the final part of our series: the top 10 Super Bowl calls.
Super Bowl IX
Steelers vs. Vikings
January 12, 1975
Covering officials: HL Ed Marion, BJ Ray Douglas, FJ Dick Dolack
Terry Bradshaw fires a 30-yard strike to Larry Brown. The Vikings tackle Brown and he fumbles. A wild scramble ensues where the Minnesota Vikings recover the ball. But head linesman Ed Marion comes in blowing his whistle and emphatically points to the ground.
This play helped illustrate the need for seven officials. Back judge Ray Douglas and field judge Dick Dolack did not have a good view of Brown hitting the ground before the ball popped loose. They rightly held their whistles and didn’t kill the play. If there was a side judge present, he might have had a good look at it. But fortunately, head linesman Ed Marion, one of the officials farthest away from the play, had the right angle and made the proper call.
Many times it is important for the official to zoom out and get a panoramic view of the play with the right angle. Fortunately, Marion was in the right position and made the right call.
Super Bowl XXI
Giants vs. Broncos
January 25, 1987
Covering officials: R Jerry Markbreit, replay judge Art McNally
Instant replay made its first appearance in a Super Bowl when the Broncos faced the Giants for Super Bowl XXI. With about three minutes left in the first half, the Broncos had the ball deep in their own territory. Broncos quarterback John Elway threw a 25-yard pass downfield to tight end Clarence Kay. The initial call on the field, was that Kay did not have control of the ball when he went down, making the pass incomplete.
After the ruling, director of officiating Art McNally, working the game as a replay judge, paged the officials on the field to signal that instant replay would take a look. As referee Jerry Markbreit, now in his second Super Bowl, waited for the decision to come down, CBS showed several views that were inconclusive. At the time, the replay official was solely responsible for making the decision to overturn a call. When Markbreit received the call from the replay booth, he announced that the call had been confirmed. On the next play, Elway was sacked in the end zone for a safety.
This turned out to be wrong, though. When the half came to a close, CBS was able to find an angle that conclusively showed that Kay had caught the ball. This play certainly had an influence when replay would be reinstituted in 1998. The replay booth would get all the same views as the broadcaster; the decision was made in concert with the referee; and “stands” was introduced for cases where the available views cannot provide conclusive proof either way.
Super Bowl V
Colts vs. Cowboys
January 17, 1971
Covering official: BJ Sonny Gamber
Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas threw a deep ball to Eddie Hinton. The ball bounded off of Hinton’s hands, was tipped by Cowboys cornerback Mel Renfro and the Colts receiver John Mackey caught it. Mackie was 30 yards from the end zone when NBC announcer Curt Gowdy was putting a damper on the celebration, saying, “That is going to be an incomplete pass — if it was not touched by Dallas.”
Under rules of that day, if a pass was tipped by an offensive player and touched by another offensive player, it was automatically incomplete — the so-called double touch rule (the same rule that was under consideration during the Immaculate Reception). If the defense touched the ball between two offensive players (making the pass tipped by the offense, then the defense, then caught by the offense), the double touch rule didn’t apply. Back judge Hugh Gamber ruled that Renfro did, in fact, tip the ball. Seeing the replay, under today’s replay mechanics, there is no indisputable evidence, so Gamber’s ruling would stand as called.
The Unitas-to-Mackey pass was a 75-yard touchdown.
The double-touch rule was very difficult to officiate because it usually involved a barely perceptible tip by the second player. Gamber didn’t want to kill the play unless he was sure — he didn’t want to guess. So the veteran back judge held his whistle and allowed the touchdown to stand.
Super Bowl XXXIV
Rams vs. Titans
January 30, 2000
Covering officials: FJ Al Jury, SJ Tom Fincken
The NFL Championship in 1958 and the AFL Championship in 1962 are the only league titles that were determined in overtime. (The AFL game went into a rare second overtime period.) The first Super Bowl played in the new millennium was the closest it has come to sudden death in the Super Bowl era.
The Titans had the ball on the Rams 10-yard line with six seconds remaining. There really was a chance to only run one play to achieve the tie. Quarterback Steve McNair was able to connect with receiver Kevin Dyson, who was at the 5-yard line. Dyson began sprinting to the end zone, and Rams linebacker Mike Jones broke off his coverage of tight end Frank Wycheck and engaged Dyson at the 2 ½. Jones grabbed Dyson by the legs, who fell forward reaching for the end zone. As time expired, Dyson was down by contact at the 1-yard line.
While there was no question about Dyson being short, field judge Al Jury and side judge Tom Fincken were stationed on the goal line and watched the play approach. If the snap was inside the 5-yard line, the head linesman and line judge would shift during the play to cover the goal line.
The fortunes of this game were decided by one yard, but the Titans were beneficiaries of a 1-yard call earlier in the postseason. In what became known as the Music City Miracle, Wycheck threw a backward pass to Dyson on a kickoff return with seconds left in their Wild Card game. Dyson ran 75 yards for a touchdown and a Titans win. The play was reviewed and the call stood that it was a legal lateral with a margin of about one yard.
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Super Bowl XLIII
Steelers vs. Cardinals
February 1, 2009
Covering officials: FJ Greg Gautreaux
After the Cardinals mounted a 9-point swing on a touchdown and a safety (#37 on this list), the Steelers were driving with 2:37 remaining on the clock. Two plays after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found receiver Santonio Holmes for a 40-yard reception down to the 6, Roethlisberger again was looking for Holmes. Parked in the back corner of the end zone, the pass was out of reach for the Cardinals coverage, and putting his toes down in the end zone, Holmes completed the process of the catch to the ground. The Steelers took the lead with 35 seconds remaining, and the call was upheld by replay.
If for nothing else, this play is the epitome of a game played by humans and judged by humans. Field judge Greg Gautreaux nailed the touchdown call in the end zone, but, for obvious reasons, held his emotions in check while on the field. Mike Pereira was the vice-president of officiating at the time, said that he found Gautreaux crying in the locker room unleashing the pent-up excitement of the game. Much like the players who, when they were young, dreamed of that last-second Super Bowl touchdown and winning the game, Gautreaux got the last-second touchdown call in the Super Bowl. And he won.
Holmes did, however, get away with an excessive celebration foul without penalty. After monitoring the post-touchdown activity, Gautreaux and the crew correctly transitioned to the extra-point attempt. At that point, Holmes used the ball as a prop, out of the view of the officials. Had it been seen, the 15-yard penalty would have been marked off on the kickoff, which might have changed the complexion of the Cardinals last-second attempt to score. Holmes was fined $10,000 during the week for the infraction.
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Top image: Chad Young for Football Zebras.