When it comes to officiating, NFL fans—not to mention players and coaches—tend to recall missed or perceived mistakes more than correct calls, especially in late-season games. Mike Pereira, who was once in charge of the people in stripes making those split-second decisions, recalls one specific accurate ruling that helped decide the outcome of a Super Bowl.
It happened on February 1, 2009, when Ben Roethlisberger connected with a leaping Santonio Holmes on a 6-yard touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left to help the Pittsburgh Steelers defeat Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and the Arizona Cardinals 27-23. Did Holmes get both feet in before going out of bounds? Did he have control over the ball?
Field judge Greg Gautreaux rushed over to the spot and instantly raised his arms, signifying the answer to both questions. Yes. Following a review by a replay assistant, the TD stood.
“It was a very tough decision. The game ended shortly after that, and I dashed down to the locker room. I went straight to (Gautreaux) and said, ‘You made one of the best calls I’ve seen in the Super Bowl.’ And he started crying,” said Pereira, a former NFL official who later oversaw the league’s program. “That just showed you how significant that stage is, given the 130 million people watching and the pressure on you. I will never forget that call. “It was so good.”
With the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers poised to face off in the Super Bowl in Las Vegas on Sunday, here are some examples of NFL officiating that gained notice — and criticism — throughout the regular season and high-profile postseason games in recent years:
Back when the defending champion Chiefs seemed less likely to reach the Super Bowl than they did, a throw from Patrick Mahomes to Marquez Valdes-Scantling from the 50 down inside the 5 was ruled incomplete, despite defensive back Carrington Valentine being all over the receiver. There were several questionable calls down the stretch in that game. “The guy was probably a bit early,” Mahomes said of the pass to Valdes-Scantling, “but at the end of the game, they’re letting guys play. “I’m thinking about that.”
With just over a minute left, Kansas City appeared to score the game-winning touchdown when Mahomes fired a pass to tight end Travis Kelce, who lateraled the ball to receiver Kadarius Toney, who ran to the end zone. However, just as the Chiefs were about to rejoice, they found the score had been nullified by an offside penalty called on Toney. Commissioner Roger Goodell cited that play to illustrate the scrutiny officials undergo, stating Monday in Las Vegas: “That was absolutely the right call.” Indeed, Toney was set up too far forward at the start of the game. Chiefs coach Andy Reid was irritated, however, because referees often offer a heads-up when a player is lined up in the neutral zone.
Detroit, which would go on to win the NFC title game, appeared to have seized the lead with 23 seconds remaining on a 2-point conversion pass from Jared Goff to offensive tackle Taylor Decker. But the authorities dismissed it, claiming Decker had not properly reported as an eligible receiver, which the Lions contested. Another strange call occurred during the game: a flag was thrown for a tripping penalty on Dallas tight end Peyton Hendershot, despite the fact that it was committed by Detroit defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.
With the score tied and less than 2 minutes remaining, Philadelphia’s James Bradberry was penalized for a defensive holding penalty on Kansas City’s Juju Smith-Schuster, allowing the Chiefs to keep the ball and run down the time before attempting a game-winning field goal. Some thought the contact was insignificant enough to make calling at such a critical time inappropriate, although Bradberry himself stated: “It was a holding.” I tugged his jersey. I was expecting they’d let it go.”
There were two penalties in the first 58 minutes, followed by flags on three consecutive plays down the stretch, including one on a defensive player identical to the call on Bradberry. With less than 2 minutes remaining, Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson was called for holding after batting the ball away from Rams receiver Cooper Kupp on Matthew Stafford’s throw. That handed Los Angeles the ball at the 4 while behind Cincinnati 20-16, and Stafford eventually struck Super Bowl MVP Kupp for a 1-yard touchdown.
There were at least two strange calls against Seattle — a holding call 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 four and a half years later, referee Bill Leavy admitted faults. “I impacted the game,” he went on to say, “and as an official, you never want to do that.”
This could be the most infamous officiating call — or no-call — of all: Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams may have been called for pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact after crushing Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis inside the 10-yard line with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter of a tied game. Two officials were nearby; neither threw a flag. “At some point, you have to accept it and move on,” Drew Brees, the Saints’ quarterback that day, told the Associated Press. “However, it brings up a lot of negative memories. “We were on our way to the Super Bowl.