The drive will be remembered for two reasons, one being Chiefs Coach Andy Reid twice calling timeout in an attempt to get the ball back. (The clock stoppages merely gave Tom Brady and Co. more time to work.) But two pass-interference penalties called by referee Carl Cheffers’s crew proved to be just as important.
Facing first and 10 from his team’s 42-yard line with the clock ticking, Brady fired a deep ball toward wide receiver Mike Evans, who was defended by cornerback Bashaud Breeland. The two appeared to get their feet tangled and both went down, but Breeland was flagged for pass interference, a 34-yard penalty that gave Tampa Bay a first down at the Chiefs’ 24-yard line.
Gene Steratore, a former NFL referee and CBS’s officiating analyst, said during the broadcast that the call had to be made.
Two plays later, Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu was called for pass interference on Evans in the end zone even though the pass from Brady did not appear to be catchable.
With the ball spotted at the 1-yard line, Brady found Antonio Brown in the end zone on the next play, giving the Bucs a lead they would hold comfortably for the rest of the night.
In the second quarter alone, the Chiefs were flagged for 90 penalty yards, the most in one quarter in Super Bowl history and the most in a quarter of any NFL game since Week 1 of the 2018 season.
Cheffers led the officiating crew in three Chiefs games this season. (He was not working with his usual crew Sunday; Super Bowl officiating teams feature the highest-rated officials from the regular season.) His crew called 11 penalties against Kansas City on Sept. 20 vs. the Los Angeles Chargers, 10 on Nov. 22 vs. the Las Vegas Raiders and 11 on Sunday in the Super Bowl. Kansas City averaged 6.6 penalties per game during the regular season; only three teams averaged more.
Entering the game, Reid said he expected Cheffers and umpire Fred Bryan to take a hands-off approach.
“Now, the referee that’s working our game, Carl Cheffers, he’s done a couple of our games this year, so he knows us, we know him. And Bryan, the umpire, we know him — the back judge, all these guys have worked our games and/or have been at our training camps in years past,” he said. “I think [Bucs Coach Bruce Arians] would tell you the same thing: By the time you get to this one, they know you, they kind of know your players, and they’ve watched tape and so on, so they’ve got a pretty good feel on things. But no, I think they let you play within reason. They’re still going to call holdings and do those things, but within reason they’ll let you play.”
Cheffers’s history with the Chiefs goes a little deeper than that. He was the head official during an AFC second-round playoff game between the Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers in January 2017. Pittsburgh won, 18-16, after Kansas City had a successful two-point conversion attempt negated by a holding penalty on tackle Eric Fisher.
Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce did not hide his disgust with Cheffers after that game, saying he “shouldn’t be able to wear a zebra jersey ever again. He shouldn’t even be able to work at [expletive] Foot Locker.”
Nevertheless, the NFL appointed Cheffers as the referee of Super Bowl LI a few weeks later.