NFL officiating can create controversy, even at a Super Bowl
When it comes to officiating, NFL fans — not to mention players and coaches — tend to remember the misses or mistakes, real or perceived, more than calls that were right, particularly in late-season games. Mike Pereira, who once was in charge of the folks in stripes making those split-second decisions, has a vivid memory of one particular correct ruling that helped determine the outcome of a Super Bowl.
It came on Feb. 1, 2009, when Ben Roethlisberger connected with a leaping Santonio Holmes on a 6-yard touchdown pass in a back corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left, helping the Pittsburgh Steelers edge Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona Cardinals 27-23. Did Holmes get both feet in before falling out of bounds? Did he have control of the ball?
Field judge Greg Gautreaux ran over to the spot and quickly raised his arms, indicating the answer to both questions: Yes. After a replay assistant's review, the TD stood.
“It was a tough, tough call. The game ended right after that, and I raced down to the locker room. I went right to (Gautreaux), and I said: ‘You made one of the best calls I’ve seen in the Super Bowl.’ And he started to cry,” said Pereira, a former on-field NFL official who later ran the league's program. “That just told you how important that stage is, with the 130 million people that are watching it and the pressure that’s on you. I’ll never forget the call. It was that good.”
With the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers set to play in the Super Bowl in Las Vegas on Sunday, here are some examples of NFL officiating that drew attention — and criticism — during this regular season and high-profile postseason games from the recent past:
THE 2023 REGULAR SEASON
Packers 27, Chiefs 19 in Week 13 (Dec. 3)
Back when getting to the Super Bowl seemed less likely for the defending champion Chiefs than it turned out to be, a throw from Patrick Mahomes to Marquez Valdes-Scantling from the 50 down inside the 5 was ruled incomplete — even though defensive back Carrington Valentine was all over the receiver. There were other questionable calls down the stretch in that one. “Obviously, the guy was probably a little early," Mahomes said about the play to Valdes-Scantling, “but at the end of the game, they’re letting guys play. I’m kind of about that.”
Bills 20, Chiefs 17 in Week 14 (Dec. 10)
With a little more than a minute remaining, Kansas City appeared to score a go-ahead touchdown when Mahomes threw a pass to tight end Travis Kelce, who — just as he was going to be tackled — lateraled the ball to receiver Kadarius Toney, who raced to the end zone. But just as the Chiefs were starting to celebrate, they realized the score was erased by an offside penalty called on Toney. Commissioner Roger Goodell used that play as an example of the scrutiny officials face, saying Monday in Las Vegas: “That was absolutely the right call.” Indeed, it was: Toney was lined up too far forward at the start of the play. Chiefs coach Andy Reid was upset, though, because officials usually give a heads-up when a player is lined up in the neutral zone.
Cowboys 20, Lions 19 in Week 17 (Dec. 30)
Detroit, which would go on to reach the NFC championship game, seemed to have taken the lead with 23 seconds to go on a 2-point conversion pass from Jared Goff to offensive lineman Taylor Decker. But the officials waved it off, saying Decker hadn't properly reported as an eligible receiver — something the Lions disputed. That game also had another questionable ruling: A flag was thrown for a tripping penalty on Dallas tight end Peyton Hendershot, even though it was committed by Detroit defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.
RECENT SUPER BOWLS
Super Bowl 57 (Feb. 12, 2023): Chiefs 38, Eagles 35
With the score tied and less than 2 minutes left, Philadelphia's James Bradberry was called for a defensive holding penalty on Kansas City's Juju Smith-Schuster, allowing the Chiefs to keep the ball and run down the clock before attempting a go-ahead field goal. Some thought the contact was minimal enough to make it wrong to call at such a crucial moment, but none other than Bradberry himself said: “It was a holding. I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide.”
Super Bowl 56 (Feb. 13, 2022): Rams 23, Bengals 20
There were two penalties in the first 58 minutes, then flags on three consecutive plays down the stretch, including one on a defensive player similar to the call against Bradberry. Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson was whistled for holding when he batted the ball away from Rams receiver Cooper Kupp on a throw from Matthew Stafford with less than 2 minutes to go. That gave Los Angeles the ball at the 4 while trailing Cincinnati 20-16; eventually Stafford hit Super Bowl MVP Kupp for a 1-yard TD.
Super Bowl 40 (Feb. 5, 2006): Steelers 21, Seahawks 10
There were at least two curious calls against Seattle — holding on offensive lineman Sean Locklear and a low block on quarterback Matt Hasselbeck on the return of an interception by Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor — and 4 1/2 years later, referee Bill Leavy acknowledged there were mistakes. “I impacted the game,” he said, “and as an official, you never want to do that.”
AN INFAMOUS NO-CALL
NFC title game (Jan. 20, 2019): Rams 26, Saints 23, OT
This might just be the most infamous officiating call — well, no-call — of all: Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman could have been cited for pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact for flattening Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis inside the 10-yard line with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter of a game that was tied. Two officials were right nearby; neither tossed a flag. “At some point, you have to accept it and move on," Drew Brees, the Saints quarterback that day, told the AP. "It brings back a lot of bad memories, though. We were on our way to the Super Bowl.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL