I remember several post-season classic games and the officiating that goes with such games. It is hard after a year or two for me to remember a classic regular-season game where the officiating actually enhanced the quality of the contest.
But, there is one regular-season game that I remember almost 26-years later. The October 17, 1994 regular season tilt between the Denver Broncos and the visiting Kansas City Chiefs, on Monday Night Football.
The Chiefs came into Mile High Stadium with a 3-2 record, having lost two in a row. Quarterback Joe Montana was in his second and final season with the Chiefs. Coach Marty Schottenheimer had never beaten the Broncos at Mile High Stadium and the Chiefs were riding an 11-game road losing streak in Denver.
The Broncos came into the game with a 1-4 record, losing their first four games. Quarterback John Elway was out to right the ship and out to get the best of Montana, after he and the San Francisco 49ers destroyed Elway and the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.
Officiating the game was arguably the best crew of the 1994 season. Referee Jerry Markbreit lead the crew with umpire Chad Brown, head linesman Mark Baltz, line judge Dale Orem, back judge Tom Sifferman, side judge Howard Slavin and field judge Don Hakes.
The game featured sparkling performances by both Elway and Montana. The Broncos and Chiefs traded scores all the way into the third quarter. A Chiefs field goal gave them a 24-21 lead with around four minutes left to play.
Both teams exchanged turnovers then John Elway took over with 2:45 left to play and 39-yards away from victory.
Elway drove the ball down and on second and goal, Markbreit and his crew rose to the occasion.
In his book, Last Call: Memoirs of a NFL Referee, Markbreit said that after Hakes and Sifferman signaled touchdown he set the ball ready for the extra point. This was when the force-out rule was still in effect, so both officials had to make a tough judgement call.
Markbreit glanced into the endzone and saw Hakes and Sifferman still hashing out the play. He jogged into the endzone and joined the conversation. In replaying the call in their heads, Hakes and Sifferman said that before the force-out, receiver Cedric Tillman stepped out of the endzone. But, Sifferman said he believed Tillman was bumped out of bounds.
Markbreit asked about potential illegal contact. NFL rules state that when a quarterback scrambles out of the pocket, the illegal contact foul goes away. Markbreit reported that Elway ran out of the pocket, so there could be no illegal contact. That left Markbreit, Hakes and Sifferman with the only call they could make – receiver out of bounds, automatic incomplete pass, loss of down, third and goal.
Mile High Stadium wasn’t happy.
After Elway called time out, the Broncos came to the line with only 10 players. By rule, the Broncos could not call another time out. They had to run a play. Shannon Sharpe stepped up to the line of scrimmage. Elway ran a quarterback draw into the endzone for a touchdown.
But there was a flag on the ground. Line judge Dale Orem had a potential six-man line, as he had counted 10 Broncos on the field.
Orem and Mark Baltz hashed out the formation and the play. They deterimined that there were six players on the line of scrimmage until Sharpe lined up on the line. 10-players, three in the backfield, seven on the line, tackles covered, Baltz and Orem told Markbreit the touchdown was good.
On the out of bounds play, the contact was right next to Sifferman and it happened very quickly (slow motion does not do it justice). Sometimes a play “blows up” right next to an official and they don’t have a panoramic view. Hakes had a touchdown, but Sifferman needed to replay the call in his head and talk about it a little more. After the conference, they properly took the touchdown away.
As an aside, Hakes did a great job keeping Elway from picking up a foul as he berated Sifferman.
On the Elway draw for a touchdown, Orem was right to put a flag down for a potential illegal formation, but he ran right in to report the issue to Markbreit. With Baltz and Orem walking through the play, they properly awarded a touchdown. Officials can always pick up a flag.
If Markbreit’s crew had missed either of those calls, it would have ruined a great game.
It turns out Montana once again had the last laugh on Elway. After the kickoff, he drove the ball down and threw a touchdown pass with eight-seconds left for a 31-28 victory.
In his book, Markbreit wrote that he was thrilled that his crew stepped up and made the right calls. While driving home from the airport the next day, he heard the local Chicago sports-talk station repeating the TV commentary that the officials blew the out of bounds call by not calling illegal contact. Markbreit was in-season and couldn’t talk to the media. But, he was upset that the sports-talkers were driving over a cliff with a wrong rule interpretation.
So, Markbreit called into the radio station and set the hosts right. While that was a violation of the “no interviews during the season” rule, the NFL didn’t punish Markbreit for the media mini-rules clinic.
The MNF crew could have used an officiating expert in the booth that night, but that concept was 15-years away.
Great plays make for great calls. Great games make for great officiating. For my money, Jerry Markbreit and his crew called the best game I’ve ever seen on October 17, 1994.