Super Bowl Moments That, Upon Further Review, Shouldn’t Have Stood As Called

The hope, when you get to the biggest game of the season, as that all the calls on the field are going to be correct and the only controversy is over something that happens off the field.

For the Super Bowl, one of the most meticulously planned sporting events on the planet, the biggest kerfuffles are usually confined to the halftime entertainment.

But every once in a while, something happens in the game that lends itself to enduring controversy and second-guessing. But even those moments, like Pete Carroll calling for a pass play from the Patriots’ two-yard line or the Atlanta Falcons passing themselves out of field goal range when two runs would have likely won the game, are simply bad strategy, not a bad ruling.

But those have happened as well, and moments that have gone down in history as totally normal and not illegal and incorrectly decided could use, shall we say, some further review.

Super Bowl 9: Steelers’ Larry Brown ruled down by contact

This might have been the only time in the pre-replay era of the Super Bowl where throwing the red challenge flag might have changed the result of a game.

Dallas Cowboys fans to this day argue that Benny Barnes did not commit pass interference against Lynn Swann late in Super Bowl 13, a call that could be argued swung a close game fully into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ favor.

But that was a judgment call, nothing that could have been challenged. But this other call that went the Steelers’ way in Super Bowl 9 in January 1975 is a totally different story.

The Steelers were completely dominating the Minnesota Vikings, holding them to 17 yards rushing for the game, but somehow the Vikings managed to stay within 9-6 with on a blocked punt for a touchdown with 10 minutes left.

On the ensuing possession, Terry Bradshaw completed a 30-yard pass to tight end Larry Brown. But as Brown was tackled to the turf, the ball came out and the Vikings recovered. Two officials immediately signaled Vikings ball, but the head linesman, Ed Marion, came in and overruled his crew members, saying Brown was down by contact before the ball came out, and gave the ball back to the Steelers.

The Vikings exploded in fury, and after the game head coach Bud Grant, a coach not prone to hyperbole, said, “There were three bad teams out there: Us, Pittsburgh, and the officials.”

Did Brown fumble? Replay quality in 1975 was hardly HD, but it did seem to indicate the ball was starting out of Brown’s hands before he was down. Had the original ruling on the field of a fumble not been overruled, it likely would have been a call that stood without clear replay evidence to the contrary. It was close.

But without the option to appeal, the Vikings ended up allowing a touchdown to Brown later in the drive that sealed the Steelers’ 16-6 victory for the first of their four Super Bowl titles of the decade.

Super Bowl 12: Butch Johnson’s diving touchdown

Granted, only the most optimistic Denver Broncos fan would claim that had Butch Johnson’s touchdown in Super Bowl 12 not counted, the Orange Crush could have come all the way back against the Doomsday Defense. This call wasn’t that kind of bad.

For the rest of us, there’s the reality that there are really no good team nicknames anymore. That, and Johnson’s touchdown might be the single-worst call in Super Bowl history. They called this a touchdown? Really? Those wacky 70s!

With the Cowboys leading 13-3 and facing a 3rd-and-10 from the Denver 45 and just over seven minutes left in the third quarter, Roger Staubach went for it all, throwing a bomb to Johnson down the middle of the field.

The pass was slightly beyond Johnson’s reach, but the second-year wide receiver dove purely horizontal to the ground on a dead run and managed to get his hands on the ball as he tumbled over the white line of the end zone and hit the ground.

The officials immediately signaled touchdown and Dallas led 20-3. But here’s the problem: When Johnson hit the turf, he dropped the ball. Not juggled, not moved around in his hands. He dropped it. He never had it.

By today’s standards, by whatever version of the Calvin Johnson Rule you wish to follow, this was not a catch. Dez Bryant had better control of the ball in 2015 than his Cowboys predecessor had. And no matter how many times John Facenda tries to tell you otherwise in the Super Bowl 12 highlight film, this was not a catch. No.

Super Bowl 31: Desmond Howard’s kickoff return

We see it every week, from Hall of Fame game to the Super Bowl: Someone makes a really nice kickoff return, someone throws a flag, and some team winds up starting their drive from inside their 25-yard line.

And 9 times out of 10, the culprit is holding on the return team. It’s as old as the game itself.

Except, apparently, if you’re Desmond Howard and the Green Bay Packers and you’re putting the dagger into the stout heart of the 1996 New England Patriots. Then it’s ok to hold.

Howard was an absolute sensation in 1996, and especially in the playoffs, returning kicks for touchdowns like most players gain three yards. He was like a living example of Tecmo Bowl, and the shocking thing was, the Patriots kicked the ball to him. No wonder they got no relief from the refs. Gotta earn it, guys.

But the fact of the matter remains, as Howard went racing downfield for his 99-yard touchdown return, just seconds after the Patriots had closed within 27-21 with 3:27 left in the third quarter, his path was cleared on a clear holding penalty against kicker Adam Vinatieri. It was Keith McKenzie who grabbed Vinatieri with both hands at his shoulder, slowing him down enough to let Howard race by.

And, in case you were wondering, this was the same season Vinatieri chased down Herschel Walker on a kickoff return, so he probably at least slows Howard down, if not outright tackles him.

This was the difference between life for the Patriots before Tom Brady, and the Patriots after. Ask the Raiders.

Super Bowl 36: The field goal that took seven seconds

Vinatieri has been on both sides of these calls. Although this one was really no one’s fault. This was truly one time no one wanted to ruin the story with pesky facts.

In the first Super Bowl after 9/11, with the team about to win the game called the Patriots, was anyone really going to let something like an extraneous two seconds spoil such a stirring, metaphoric moment that lifted the hearts of all Americans not from St. Louis?

After the kid quarterback called Tom Brady drove the Patriots down the field into Vinatieri’s kicking range, in a 17-17 game against the high-powered Rams offense, with John Madden practically begging the Patriots not to try it, the game came down to the right leg of Mr. Clutch.

Vinatieri had two weeks earlier kicked the most improbable field goal in NFL history by hitting from 45 yards out in a raging blizzard to send the “Tuck Rule” game into overtime. Now he did something even more incredible: He bent time.

There were seven seconds remaining when the Patriots snapped the ball, Vinatieri kicked it and it sailed straight through the uprights for a 20-17 lead. The gun sounded and the confetti exploded and the victorious Patriots celebrated on the field, right down the snow angel lineman in the end zone.

One problem, guys. There were still two seconds on the clock. Or, at least, there should have been. The ball clearly hits the net, and refs clearly signal the kick as good, with two seconds showing on the stadium clock. They just let those seconds run off. No need for some messy kickoff shenanigans to ruin the feel-good story of 2002.

The league never actually admitted it allowed those two seconds to just run off and kind screw the Rams. But they did subsequently clarify the rules about field goals and time, making it essentially uniform that field goals take four seconds, which is why teams looking to kick a walk-off field goal take their time out with four seconds or less on the clock.

Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

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