Grading the officials as Broncos improve to 6-0 in Clete Blakeman's games

Referee Clete Blakeman's crew called 19 penalties on the night, about six more than average for a Super Bowl. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Let's hit the facts before dishing the analysis.

After their 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, the Denver Broncos are now 6-0 in games refereed by Clete Blakeman. Blakeman's crew called more than twice as many penalties on the Panthers (12 accepted, plus one declined) as it did on the Broncos (six), and the game's total of 19 flags represented an active night of officiating by Super Bowl standards. (From 2001-14, the average number of penalties in a Super Bowl was 13.43.)

Viewed traditionally, however, Blakeman's crew let the teams play. It called only one offensive holding penalty and threw only two flags in the defensive secondary -- both for defensive holding -- on a night that featured 76 dropbacks and plenty of grabbing on both sides. A total of seven personal fouls, some for relatively mild offenses, almost certainly reflected a league priority to keep control of the most-watched game of the season.

How did the officials fare on the handful of calls that fell into a gray area? We'll take a closer look and, because it was the Super Bowl and all, we'll throw out a grade for each of them and wrap up with an overall assessment.

Situation: First down from the Panthers' 15-yard line with seven minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the first quarter

Play: Pass from Cam Newton to Jerricho Cotchery ruled incomplete and upheld on replay

Analysis: I addressed this play in a post during the game. Thankfully, it was the only time the NFL's troublesome catch rule impacted the Super Bowl.

The first official to rule the play incomplete was head linesman Wayne Mackie, whose view was obscured. The ball moved into Cotchery's left hand as he was tackled. The tip of the ball touched the ground -- which does not necessarily make the pass incomplete, as long as control is maintained -- and ultimately settled in his left hand on the ground.

At full speed, the play looked like a catch. Cotchery seemed to have control when the ball hit the ground, and he seemed to fulfill the wording of the catch rule. (When the ball did come loose later, he regained control before it hit the ground.)

But to an official craning his neck around Cotchery, the ball's initial movement was a trigger. Whether Cotchery had complete control at the time the ball hit the ground was a judgment call. And that meant it wouldn't rise to the NFL's high standard for overturning calls on replay: a "clear and obvious" mistake.

Grade: C. The catch rule is as difficult to officiate as it is to explain, and an argument could be made in either direction. But vice president of officiating Dean Blandino did not endorse the initial call when he noted via Twitter that there wasn't enough evidence to overturn.

Situation: First down from the Broncos' 20-yard line with 11:25 remaining in the second quarter

Play: Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s incompletion is reversed to a sack

Analysis: Replays immediately showed that Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy grabbed Manning's towel and touched his leg as he ran past him, meaning that Manning should have been ruled down when he fell to the ground. Standing in his spot behind the quarterback, Blakeman's view was obscured by Broncos tackle Michael Schofield. Blakeman didn't appear to see the contact, so the play continued after Manning popped back up.

The only decision for Panthers coach Ron Rivera was whether to use his second (and final) challenge on what amounted to a 7-yard sack. Rivera threw the flag and the play was correctly reversed.

Grade: D. No game is officiated perfectly, but if Blakeman's view was obscured, you would have hoped another official would help him out.

Situation: First down from the Broncos' 48-yard line with 13:55 remaining in the second quarter

Play: Broncos linebacker Von Miller tackled Newton after a 12-yard scramble out of bounds, prompting protest from multiple people on the Panthers' bench

Analysis: Miller was aggressive in taking down Newton, but it did not reach the level of unsportsmanlike conduct. As a runner, Newton did not have quarterback protection.

The crew had a more difficult decision to make when Ealy jumped off the bench and pushed Miller. It appeared that quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey advanced at Miller as well, but if contact was made, it wasn't visible on the broadcast.

Grade: B. Technically, players on the bench shouldn't push those who come off the field. But that penalty is rarely called. The only argument for throwing a flag would have been as a deterrent against future confrontations.

Situation: Fourth down from the Broncos' 26-yard line with 10:54 remaining in the third quarter

Play: Panthers place-kicker Graham Gano’s 44-yard field goal attempt hits the right upright with Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib in his face

Analysis: Talib nearly blocked the kick from his spot as the left end and could have distracted Gano by getting so close. The question was whether Talib was offside, and after watching the sideline view slowly, I don't think he was.

There is no doubt that Talib starting moving before the snap, but from the broadcast view, it didn't appear he crossed the line of scrimmage before the ball moved. It was close, but a good argument could be made for Talib getting a perfectly timed jump.

Grade: A. You often see officials react to early movement. I thought this was a strong no-call.

Situation: Second down from the Broncos' 32-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter

Play: Panthers safety Tre Boston was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct

Analysis: Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders was celebrating a 16-yard reception when Boston walked by, knocked the ball out of Sanders' hands and gave him a light shove. Technically, Boston's actions were a violation of the NFL rule prohibiting unnecessary delays of game.

Grade: C. Again, Blakeman's crew was doing its best to retain control of the game, and for the most part, the crew called sportsmanship penalties tightly. This wasn't an egregious offense, however.

Situation: Third down from the Broncos' 21-yard line with 10:31 remaining

Play: Newton's pass to receiver Ted Ginn Jr. was ruled incomplete despite heavy-handed coverage from Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby

Analysis: Roby had both arms wrapped around Ginn before the ball arrived, a classic case of pass interference. There is no doubt Roby restricted Ginn from making what would have been a key first-down catch.

Grade: B. A penalty would have been defensible, but given the context of the game -- there wasn't a single defensive pass interference call all night -- I was fine without it. Like it or not, that's how NFL officials tend to call playoff games. It went both ways. I wouldn't have wanted the pattern to shift in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.


It's not ideal when a coach feels compelled to use both challenges in the first 20 minutes of the game. And the relatively high penalty total extended the game (3 hours, 43 minutes), making it the longest uninterrupted Super Bowl in 12 years. Super Bowl XLVII was longer, but it was delayed by an electrical outage at the Superdome in New Orleans.

For the most part, however, Blakeman's crew let the players and coaches decide the game. It let linemen block, allowed defensive backs to cover aggressively and inserted itself into the game mostly to keep control of players' emotions. The crew met and exceeded reasonable Super Bowl expectations.