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  • Deciding whether or not to challenge a play looms larger than ever in the Super Bowl. A look at past coaches and their red-flag philosophies in the biggest game of the year, and why history suggests Belichick and McVay will fare well with their challenges on Sunday.
By Jonathan Jones
January 30, 2019

ATLANTA — The first 33 years of Sean McVay’s life have led him to Sunday night, the biggest game of his young coaching career. Football is football, he says, and while he respects the magnitude of this game, it’s still the same game.

Sure, timeouts are longer. And halftime will feel like an eternity. But once the coin flip is out of the way, he’ll be calling plays like he has the past 35 games. However, Super Bowl coaches past and present will tell you one thing feels different.

The red challenge flag has been known to get heavier for coaches. Challenging a play means risking a timeout that may end up being a chunk of gold late in this game. But history has smiled kindly on coaches who are willing to throw the flag in the Super Bowl.

“The challenges are always really important and you want to make sure you make great decisions with regards to the things we can control,” McVay says. “If it’s something we feel like based on the information we’re getting and the situation, sometimes you have to trust your gut. And it is a big game and every single play is going to have a potential influence on the outcome of it.

“I know that until you actually get in that moment you can never really prepare yourself for it. We’re confident that our team will play to the best of our ability and I’m hopeful that I’ll make the best decisions for our team.”

Since the advent of coaching challenges in 1999, the NFL has overturned 38% of plays challenged in regular-season games. Bill Belichick, who has helmed the Patriots since 2000, has essentially kept with the league average, earning a 41% overturn rate in his career. McVay, with all two years of head coaching experience, sits around that mark with 43% of his challenges getting overturned.

But challenging calls on Super Bowl Sunday has, historically, been different. Over 19 challenge-era Super Bowls, 25 plays have been challenged by coaches, with 14 being overturned. It’s an exceedingly small sample size compared to 20 years of regular season games, but the overturn rate of 56% is a rather drastic difference from the regular-season rate. And this year’s game comes after a regular season in which challenged calls were overturned at a higher rate than ever.

Back in 1999, just 29% of plays reviewed were reversed. Over time the rules on what you could challenge changed—in 2011, all scoring plays would be automatically reviewed, and a year later all turnovers would be, too. In 2016, 43% of calls challenged by coaches were reversed.

Over the last two seasons, all reviews have gone to New York for the final word from head of officiating Al Riveron. The reversal rate hit a new high mark of 46% in 2017 and jumped again, to 49%, this season.

“Look the plays in this league are so close and the athletes are spectacular. There are so many plays that are a fraction of an inch or a split-second,” Belichick says. “I think the officials really overall do a great job of making those judgments and they have a fraction of a second to make it. We can see the play [multiple] times and sometimes it’s still hard to tell. I give a lot of credit for what they do and I know they’re trying to do a good job.”

Andrew Hancock/Sports Illustrated

Some of the reasons for the rising success rates are obvious. With nearly 20 years of collective experience to draw from, coaches are better than ever at challenging plays. A centralized review center takes decisions out of the hands of individual referees and places them in one location. With scoring plays and turnovers automatically reviewed, there are fewer desperation challenges. And, perhaps most notably, video technology continues to advance.

“It is a big difference,” says Dean Blandino, the league’s former VP of officiating and now a rules analyst for FOX. “Technology is getting better and we’re getting more and more camera angles in these games and that’s led to a higher rate of these calls getting overturned.”

This, according to those interviewed for this story, is the main reason for the higher overturn rate in the Super Bowl. No game in any given season is assigned as many cameras as the Super Bowl, and that means more informed decisions by the head coach and his staff to discern whether to throw the red flag.

Estimates vary depending on the network and profile of the game, but a 1 p.m. regular-season contest could have between eight and 20 cameras, and a contested play could show three or four angles. This year’s Super Bowl will boast 115 CBS cameras and likely have more than a dozen angles on any controversial play.

The first Super Bowl challenge came in Super Bowl XXXV between the Ravens and Giants. Down 24-7 in the fourth quarter, Giants coach Jim Fassel challenged a touchdown run by Jamal Lewis, on which he crossed the goal line just before fumbling into the end zone. “He did not have possession when that ball crossed the line of scrimmage, er, crossed the goal line,” Fassel told referee Gerry Austin.

Back then scoring plays weren’t automatically reviewed, and so Blandino, who happened to be the replay official for that game, got to work with the help of a then-record 67 cameras at the Super Bowl.

“Before the game and we were talking about the coverage. They had cameras surrounding the stadium with the ability to give us a 360-degree look,” says Blandino, referring to CBS’s “EyeVision” technology. “They could rotate the play and go all the way around and they did that on that play. We weren’t 100% sure. It looked like the nose of the ball hit the plane of the goal line, but at the very least we knew we didn’t have enough to change it because it wasn’t clear-cut.”

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Only four Super Bowls since 1999 have not seen a challenge. Super Bowl XXXIX between the Patriots and Eagles saw three successful challenges (two by Andy Reid and one by Belichick) for the first and only time in the game’s history. Super Bowl XLIII between the Steelers and Cardinals saw a record four replay reviews, with two coaching challenges by Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and two automatic reviews (the James Harrison 100-yard interception return and the Santonio Holmes touchdown catch.)

Whisenhunt benefited from the additional camera angles on his first challenge. Ben Roethlisberger scrambled for what appeared to be a 1-yard touchdown less than 5 minutes into the game. Whisenhunt and his staff never saw the ball clearly cross the goal line in replays and so he challenged the scoring play (again, ancient times). The call on the field was reversed, the ball was placed at the 1-foot line. Mike Tomlin opted to kick the field goal—Whisenhunt’s challenge kept your points off the board.

On the first series of the third quarter, Whisenhunt again threw the challenge flag when Kurt Warner was hit in the pocket and lost the ball, ruled on the field as a fumble and a Pittsburgh recovery. The question was whether Warner was in a throwing motion. Despite all those extra cameras, the replays didn’t make Whisenhunt feel 100% safe in his challenge, but he was comforted by Warner, his future Hall of Fame quarterback, insisting he was throwing the ball. “You’re inclined to want to believe [the quarterback]; there’s a difference when it’s a defensive back or receiver,” Whisenhunt jokes.

Had he lost that challenge, he would have been out for the rest of what was an incredibly close game throughout. But he felt it necessary to challenge because it was a turnover and because he felt the tide was going against the underdog Cardinals. His faith was well-placed: The call was overturned. Rather than the Steelers taking over at midfield, the ensuing punt pushed them back inside their own 20.

“If I recall correctly, there was a little bit of a disparity in the penalties called in that game. More were called on us,” Whisenhunt (correctly) notes. At the time of the review, the Cardinals led in penalties 5-2 and at one points in the fourth quarter led 10-2 (the final tally was 11-7). “I’m not saying it’s just us. But here we are and the Arizona Cardinals have never played in a Super Bowl, playing the vaunted Steelers and it felt like maybe some of the calls weren’t quite going our way.

“So in some of those situations it felt like making the challenge is the only way, in your mind, that you can swing the balance back to what it needs to be. And whether that’s the right perspective or not, when you talk about how it does weigh more, look this is the last game you’re playing. You can’t afford to pass up a situation where that can make a difference.”

This gets to an essential point. Should a coach’s philosophy on challenges be adjusted for the Super Bowl?

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On the morning of Super Bowl 50, Panthers coach Ron Rivera sat in his hotel room and went through his coaching checklist when he arrived at challenges. He weighed his possible challenges in order as follows: 1) if the Panthers were backed and something happened to get them out of a hole; 2) if the Broncos would benefit significantly from a perceived wrong call and; 3) save a challenge for the fourth quarter.

Midway through the first quarter, Rivera challenged a ruling that Cam Newton’s 23-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery hit the ground incomplete. Cotchery bobbled it and, as he went to the ground, had trouble corralling it. But none of the available replays showed the ball clearly touched the ground. Blandino, then the head of officiating for the league, says one official ruled it complete and another ruled it incomplete; the crew settled as incomplete at the on-field call.

Trailing 3-0 and facing the prospect of second-and-10 from their own 15 against the Broncos’ top-ranked defense, Rivera felt the risk of challenging what he felt was an obvious catch was well worth the reward of getting out of the hole and near midfield to kick-start the offense.

“I agree [with Rivera], I never saw a shot showing it clearly hit the ground,” says Blandino, then the league’s head of officiating. “But I never saw a shot that it didn’t hit a ground, and you didn’t see the football the entire time. And that’s kind of the basic premise of replay where you can assume, but if you can’t prove it then you have to stay with the call on the field. And I think that was one where Ron was just on the wrong end of the call on the field. If it had been ruled a catch on the field then it would have stayed a catch.”

The ruling of an incomplete pass stood as called, and Rivera lost a timeout he could have used at the end of the first half, as well as the opportunity for a third challenge later in the game. Four minutes into the second quarter, he had to use his second challenge on an obvious Peyton Manning sack and, just like that, No. 3 on his checklist was out the window. Three years later, the play still eats at Rivera.

“It could be hindsight and it could be sour grapes, but at the end of the day when the league tells you that if they ruled it a catch, it would have been hard for us to overturn that it was a catch. …You would think that with as many angles that they have and as many times as it was shown on the replay, me challenging that was a good chance [of an overturn.]

“And so when you look at that and think, Gah, with all those cameras and with all the angles that I’ve seen looking up on the board, that’s a catch! That’s a catch! I kept looking at all the angles on the board and I’m like well let’s go we’re moving the ball now.”

The majority of Super Bowl challenges (16 out of 25) have come in the second half, and the plurality (nine out of 25) has come in the fourth quarter. In some cases, the red flag is thrown because, as Whisenhunt says, “you can’t afford not to.”

In Super Bowl XLVI—otherwise known as the second Giants-Patriots game—Belichick took his lone Super Bowl review loss when he challenged the Mario Manningham catch. Belichick stood right beside the play, arms crossed, as Manningham secured the catch and got both feet down. But with less than four minutes left in a close game and Eli Manning rushing to the line to get off the next play, Belichick threw the flag.

Ditto Dan Quinn in Super Bowl LI between the Falcons and Patriots and that epic Julian Edelman catch. After just one replay, Joe Buck was able to exclaim “THAT’S A CATCH!,” but the Patriots were rushing to snap the ball before the two-minute warning and Quinn had no choice but to rush and challenge the 23-yard catch as his team’s lead slipped away.

Losing out on a challenge obviously costs your team a timeout, but it also costs your team one of its two challenges and also means you won’t get that third challenge. Imagine a missed call late, before the two-minute warning, that needs to be challenged by a coach but he can’t because he’s out of challenges.

“Human nature, it does weigh on you,” Whisenhunt says. “When you have to throw one early and it’s a critical one and you know it’s a limited amount and what the impact is, it makes a big difference. In that game because of the way situations are magnified, it’s a much more difficult position you’re in.”

Belichick knows that position well. Sean McVay will get to know it on Sunday.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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