Reviewing the Calls and Challenges in Super Bowl 50

A look at three calls during Super Bowl 50 shines a spotlight on good calls, bad calls, and NFL rules that are works-in-progress.

Last night’s Super Bowl 50 between Denver and Carolina was a weird one, featuring sloppy play by both sides and fifteen punts (not a record, but a lot).

*While we’re on the topic of punts in the Super Bowl, that record is held by my Giants, who punted 11 times against the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV. The Ravens punted ten times that game, collectively setting a “record” of 21. That game was also notable for featuring two kick returns for touchdowns on back to back plays and for tying the all-time largest margin of victory. 

It also featured a number of questionable calls in the early going that reminded me that the NFL Rule Book is murkier and more open to interpretation than Making a Murderer.

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1. Jericho Cotchery’s Non-Catch

The rule determining what is, and is not, a completed catch has been the subject of much confusion and derision over the last few years, with the NFL struggling to find ways to better define the rule in light of new, super slow-motion technology. The best rundown I’ve seen about this debate was compiled here by SB Nation, and I suggest you click through if you want to be so confused that you forget everything you ever thought you knew about football.

First, let’s take a look at the play which, after review, was ruled not to be a catch:

He appears to catch it, hit the ground, lose it, but then catch it again. So why isn’t this a catch?

The NFL’s most recent effort to clarify the rule came prior to this season, and they may have done more harm than good:

“In order to complete a catch, a receiver must clearly become a runner. He does that by gaining control of the ball, touching both feet down and then, after the second foot is down, having the ball long enough to clearly become a runner, which is defined as the ability to ward off or protect himself from impending contact. If, before becoming a runner, a receiver falls to the ground in an attempt to make a catch, he must maintain control of the ball after contacting the ground. If he loses control of the ball after contacting the ground and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete.” (emphasis added)

Yes, really. The actual definition in the Rule Book shines no additional light on the topic, nor do comments by people affiliated with the NFL, like the former VP of Officiating Mike Pereira.

Watching it live, I thought it was a catch. However, it appears that in accordance with the new wording of the rule, and perhaps despite common sense, the officials were correct to confirm the call. Although Cotchery did make a great play to catch the ball (um… corral the ball?) after deflecting it into the air, the ball did come loose after the initial contact with the ground. As Cotchery appeared to have control of the ball momentarily, the officials adjudged him to still be “in the act of catching a pass”.

This stands in stark contrast to the “fumble” rule, which says that the ground cannot cause a fumble. However you can only “fumble” if you are a runner and if you have full possession of the ball first. Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1. In this case, Cotchery had not yet reached that point. Because the ball touched the ground during Cotchery’s initial contact with the ground, the pass was incomplete, despite the fact that Cotchery regained possession thereafter.

Verdict: Good Call, but is it a Good Rule?

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2. Aqib Talib’s Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Talib was flagged for Unsportsmanlike Conduct for a little exchange with Carolina receiver Philly Brown, pictured below:

The announcers said (or implied) the penalty was because Talib removed his helmet, and I assumed that it was because you are not allowed to remove your helmet on the field. But that didn’t sit right with me, because Talib wasn’t on the field, he was very clearly on his own sideline. I decided to check into the rules to see what kind of helmet-related actions might constitute Unsportsmanlike Conduct:

(h) Removal of his helmet by a player in the field of play during a celebration or during a confrontation with a game official or any other player. Rule 12, Section 3.

You’ll notice that this rule uses “or” when connecting those two phrases, meaning that a violation of either one is enough to trigger the penalty. In the judgment of the officials, this “conversation” between Talib and Brown must have risen to the level of a “confrontation,” so when Talib removed his helmet, he was in violation of the rules despite his location.

Verdict: Good Call

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3. Peyton Manning Down By Contact

In the middle of the second quarter, Peyton Manning slipped while trying to avoid a defender and fell to the ground. While on his way down, but before touching the ground, he is grazed by a defender.

See the video here.


Although the live play was allowed to continue, upon review, the officials ruled that “the quarterback was touched and down by contact.” Again, I went to the rule book:

(a) when a runner is contacted by a defensive player and touches the ground with any part of his body other than his hands or feet. The ball is dead the instant the runner touches the ground. Rule 7, Section 2.

This one requires a little more interpretation, but I believe that it should be clear that Peyton was not “down by contact.” As Manning was never touched while on the ground, it is clear that the ruling of down by contact depended on the manner and effect of the contact while he was in motion.

It’s clear from the wording of the rule and common-sense that a runner simply touching the ground some time after being “contacted by a defensive player” is not enough to make that runner down by contact. For instance, a running back may bounce off a defender at the line of scrimmage and then trip and fall to the ground thirty yards later when he is all by himself. In that case, he was contacted and then touched the ground, but the contact did not cause the player to touch the ground.

The officials had a chance to look at this play in super slo-mo, but I believe they made a mistake. Even though the defender did touch Manning, he did not a) cause him to fall to the ground or b) touch him while he was down.

Verdict: Bad Call

Luckily, none of the above calls were particularly egregiously wrong, and those that were wrong did not have a material impact on the game.

This is a picture of Beyonce performing at the Super Bowl a couple years ago, because there cannot be enough pictures of Beyonce.