Grading Super Bowl LI referees: A great night all the way around

New England's Shea McClellin attempts to block a point after touchdown in the second quarter against Atlanta, but the play was called for illegal formation. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Referee Carl Cheffers and his crew had a great night at Super Bowl LI.

As a result of their excellent work, history will remember the game for its organic highlights rather than a poor call or a showman game administrator. Cheffers quietly called 16 penalties in the New England Patriots' 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons, three of which were declined and none could really be debated.

The closest to a questionable call (or non-call) I could find, as you can see in the posts below, was a failure to recognize a late hit out of bounds in the first quarter.

But the crew nailed the night's three most difficult calls:

  • A 27-yard reception by Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who somehow managed to get both feet in bounds near the sideline in the fourth quarter.

  • A juggling 23-yard pass from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to receiver Julian Edelman. Line judge Jeff Seeman came sprinting toward the play with a catch ruling, and the replay showed that Edelman had managed to keep the ball off the ground.

  • The winning touchdown run by Patriots running back James White, who managed to get the ball across the goal line before his knee touched the ground.

The verdict: This was one of the best and most expertly officiating games we've seen in a while. Grade: A.

Here are a few other thoughts I had in watching the final game of the 2016 NFL season:

First Quarter

Call No. 1: On the first play of the Patriots' second possession, Edelman took a big hit at least three yards out of bounds from Falcons linebacker Deion Jones. The pass gained two yards for New England to the Patriots' 12-yard line, but the officiating crew could have easily tacked on 15 yards for a late hit. That would have moved the ball to the 27-yard line.

The verdict: Generally we prefer officials to let them play in the Super Bowl, but a late hit out of bounds doesn't fall in that category. Grade: D

Second Quarter

Call No. 2: The Falcons received a second chance to kick an extra point after Matt Ryan's 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper. Patriots linebacker Shea McClellin, who was trying to time his leap to block the kick, was penalized for an illegal formation. McClellin was ruled to have been lined up over long-snapper Josh Harris on the line of scrimmage at the snap. But replays revealed that McClellin actually was in between the long-snapper and guard Chris Chester. Place-kicker Matt Bryant aborted the kick. NFL rules call for an illegal formation penalty if the player is not fully outside of the long-snapper's shoulders. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was livid, and actually showed the officiating crew photographs of the play shortly afterwards.

The verdict: The penalty shouldn't have been called, and the Falcons shouldn't have gotten a second chance to kick. Grade: F

Call No. 3: Cheffers penalized the Falcons three times for defensive holding, all on third down, to keep a Patriots drive alive. Two were called on cornerback Brian Poole and one on cornerback Robert Alford. The NFL rulebook defines defensive holding as occurring when a player "grasps an eligible offensive player (or his jersey) with his hands, or extends an arm or arms to cut off or encircle them."

The verdict: Pregame tendencies suggested that this crew would let defensive backs be physical, but all three of these plays were obvious and clear violations. The timing was bad for the Falcons, but they were correct and appropriate calls. Grade: A

Third Quarter

Call No. 4: Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler was called for pass interference on third-and-4 from their 9-yard line, converting a first down from what had been a complete pass to Falcons receiver Taylor Gabriel. Replays showed that Butler had a grip on Gabriel's left arm as he dove to knock the pass away. The Falcons took a 28-3 lead on the next play.

The verdict: Technically, the call met the definition of pass interference. Butler hindered Gabriel's chance to catch the ball. But was it "significant," as the rulebook requires? That's debatable. We've seen contact much worse go uncalled. Grade: C

Call No. 5: Cheffers stepped in to help correct an odd sight: The locked face masks of Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett and Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney. The process took about 20 seconds off the clock, from about the 4:05 mark in the third quarter to the 3:45 mark. At no time did Cheffers signal for a referee's timeout.

The verdict: Cheffers made the right decision. According to the rulebook, Cheffers has the option to call a timeout to "repair or replace game equipment, except player equipment." Grade: A