Everyone hopes Super Bowl LVIII won't come down to an officiating call
San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York was asked the other day what comes to mind when he thinks back to his team’s Super Bowl loss to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs four years ago, and he quipped: “I mean, I remember Nick Bosa getting held on third-and-long — and that not getting called.”
So perhaps it would be understandable if York wasn’t thrilled to learn the referee in charge back then, Bill Vinovich, will be wearing the white cap in Las Vegas for the Niners vs. Chiefs championship rematch on Sunday, too. One of the biggest fears when it comes to the biggest sport's biggest games might just be that a high-profile bad call or no-call will play a role in the result — and each of the past two Super Bowls did have key, questioned rulings in the late stages.
"The reality is, if something happens in the Super Bowl, that is going to stay with you the entire offseason. That is going to really direct and control the narrative around the finish. You can have a great year and you can have smooth sailing — and then something goes wrong in the Super Bowl, and that’s all people are going to remember,” said Dean Blandino, who was a replay official for two Super Bowls before a stint as the NFL’s head of officiating. “There’s no doubt that is a major, major concern.”
Team owners, front-office executives, coaches and players don’t want that.
Neither do fans — or gamblers (who, aside from a vested interest in the final score, can wager on the total number of penalty yards or which coach will challenge a call first in the Super Bowl).
Neither does the league. And neither do those wearing the black-and-white uniforms.
“No official wants to be part of the story,” said Mike Pereira, who worked on the field for NFL games and later oversaw all of the league’s officiating. “None of them.”
It's bad enough when an error comes in the regular season, dominating next-day conversation, as seemed to happen repeatedly in 2023-24. It's worse when it comes in the postseason. Worst of all is when it appears to directly affect a key game's outcome, such as when a crew run by Vinovich — yes, there's that name again — completely missed an obvious penalty (or two) late in the NFC championship game in January 2019, when the Los Angeles Rams beat the New Orleans Saints to reach the Super Bowl.
“You don’t ever get over it,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said.
And make no mistake: Mistakes happen. Of course they do, even if Pereira thinks “the percentage of correct calls is better than in my day." Social media and TV attention mean late-game miscues “become talked about ad nauseam,” he said.
Asked about officiating during a media session in Las Vegas on Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he thinks “the level of scrutiny is at the highest I’ve ever seen it," and so, “even when an official gets it right, there’s criticism.”
Observes Scott Green, who officiated in three Super Bowls and now is the head of the NFL Referees Association: “Quarterbacks throw interceptions. Coaches make bad decisions. We’re human beings just like they are and there will be mistakes, and they are visible. If the public wants 100% correct, that’s unfair. That’s not going to happen.”
What can't be debated is the significance of the role officials have in each game. That's why, for one thing, teams prepare each week with an eye to who'll be carrying the yellow flags.
Offensive linemen worry about how holding will be judged; defensive linemen are concerned about hitting quarterbacks, particularly high or late; linebackers fret about where the line will be drawn when it comes to proper tackling; defensive backs find themselves focusing on how “handsy” they can be with receivers.
“Penalties affect every game; some more than others,” Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton said after Baltimore lost to visiting Kansas City in the AFC championship game late last month.
After some calls went against the Ravens, video screens in Baltimore’s stadium flashed a message intended to get spectators to chant “De-fense!” in support of the home team. Instead, thousands chose a different two-syllable word — hint: the first part was “Bull” — for an impromptu and collective commentary.
As with so much these days, conspiracy theories abound related to whether officiating calls — in all sports, not only the NFL, mind you — could result from bias on the part of an individual or, indeed, a league.
Another issue: Some rulings are open to interpretation, which means a particular official can view what happens differently than a player or coach or announcer or partisan fan does.
"You’re seeing some rules being emphasized for the sake of satisfying society’s softness in a game that is not a soft game at all,” said Detroit Lions fullback Jason Cabinda, whose club was on the wrong end of one of this season’s most-disputed calls. “You got to be brave. You got to have courage. This isn’t basketball; this isn’t lacrosse. You better have your head on a swivel because you can get it knocked off. They’re trying to change that.”
While Goodell called the current officiating “superior,” he also acknowledged the NFL needs to try to improve in that area.
How? Others have offered suggestions.
Maybe hire more full-time officials, the way other sports such as Major League Baseball, the NHL and NBA do — although, it must be said, no one close to the situation can agree on whether that would make a difference in the NFL. Pereira thinks it would make sense to at least have the referees who oversee each crew be full-timers.
Maybe make more penalties reviewable, something former New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees would like for roughing-the-passer flags. Then again, Brees said, no one wants more time spent on reviews.
Maybe institute the sort of mea culpa reports the NBA uses to acknowledge late-game refereeing errors, though Pereira wouldn't welcome the additional after-the-fact scrutiny. He called the NBA's policy “absolutely senseless," adding: “It serves no purpose, other than to put more negative light on officiating.”
Then again, maybe officiating can’t be improved, not when there are more than 150 plays per game requiring quick decisions (there were about 13 penalties per game this season).
“I mean,” Brees said, “until you start having robots out there, it’s not perfect.”
AP Sports Writers Josh Dubow, Larry Lage, Brett Martel and Noah Trister contributed to this report.
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