Zebra Hunt: Peter Morelli

Unlike some of our "Zebra Hunt" subjects this season, Peter Morelli, the official designated for the upcoming Seattle-San Francisco contest, doesn't have any sort of dubious past with the Seahawks. He did officiate Seattle's Week Eight 35-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, but that had more to do with an inability to stop Larry Johnson than anything untoward from the crew.

Morelli also called one of the more infamous defeats in recent team history, the 17-point fourth-quarter faceplant against the Rams in 2004 – a game the Seahawks lost, 33-27 in overtime after leading, 27-10. That, however, can hardly be blamed on Morelli. More prevalent on the day in question was the absolute nadir of Seattle’s “back-‘em-off-and-let-‘em-score” prevent defense. Morelli officiated no Seahawks games in 2005.

Morelli, born in 1952, began his NFL career in 1997 as a field judge/back judge (the NFL changed the title of this position in 1998), and became a referee in 2003. He was named to the Super Bowl XXVI as a field judge. The New England Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams in that game, 20-17.

Morelli’s most controversial game came in the postseason – the AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers on January 15, 2006. In that game, Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a Peyton Manning pass with 5:26 left in the fourth quarter. The Steelers were leading the game, 21-10 at the time, and the interception would have sewn up the game for the eventual Super Bowl champs.

However, Morelli ruled that Polamalu didn’t have possession of the ball based on his fumble and recovery of the football after making the catch. Colts coach Tony Dungy threw the replay challenge flag, and Morelli overturned the interception upon review. Indianapolis went on to score and make a two-point conversion, but Mike Vanderjagt’s eventual missed field goal with time running out allowed the Steelers to win, 21-18.

"I had the defender catching the ball,” Morelli told a pool reporter after the game. “Before he got up, he hit it with his leg with his other leg still on the ground. He never had possession with his leg up off the ground, doing an act common to the game of football. He was losing it while his other leg was still on the ground. Therefore, he did not complete the catch. And then he lost the ball. It came out, and so we made the play an incomplete pass."

One day later, NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira issued a statement which said that Morelli had erroneously overruled the interception. "He maintained possession long enough to establish a catch," Pereira said. "Therefore, the replay review should have upheld the call on the field that it was a catch and fumble."

What Pereira would have said publicly had the Colts won the game is an interesting topic for debate.

In that same game, Morelli’s crew called what amounted to a “do-over”, when Pittsburgh guard Alan Faneca flinched pre-snap on a fourth-and-2 play, sending several Colts defenders over the line. The crew stopped the clock, but issued no penalty. On the next (actual) play, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ran for a first down.

That game was the most egregious example of the extremely inconsistent officiating in the 2005 postseason until Super Bowl XL. The aftereffects were not pleasant for Morelli and his crew – not only did Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter basically accuse him of leaning the game in one direction ("The whole world wanted Indy to win so bad, they were going to do whatever they had to do."), but Morelli’s Stockton, CA home was vandalized on the same Sunday of the blown call.

Morelli, who is a high school principal in the offseason, and his wife were getting ready for bed when they heard a loud crash. The Morellis found broken glass and a rock thrown through a window in the home.

"It's kinda suspicious because of its close proximity to the game, but he doesn't know if it was related to his duties as a referee, his job as a high school principal or if it was a random act of mischief," Stockton police Lt. Thomas Wells told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on the Wednesday after the incident.

It’s unknown how such things affect the human psyche, but the fact is that Morelli’s 2006 crew is calling a very low number of penalties. After twelve games, the crew is averaging 10.4 per game, the lowest per-game total in the NFL (125 total, and 12 were declined), after averaging 14.1 (about the middle of the pack) in 2005.

Here’s how Morelli’s penalties break down for 2006, according to Football Outsiders' penalty data:

False Start
Offensive Holding
Defensive Offside
Defensive Pass Interference
Unnecessary Roughness
Delay of Game
Defensive Holding
Offensive Pass Interference
Illegal Contact
Personal Foul
Illegal Use of Hands
Face Mask (5 Yards)
Illegal Block Above the Waist
Roughing the Passer
Illegal Formation
Intentional Grounding
Neutral Zone Infraction
Illegal Motion
Unsportsmanlike Conduct
Illegal Shift
Defensive 12 On-field
Offside on Free Kick
Offensive Offside

Morelli’s 2006 crew:

Line Judge: Charles Stewart
Field Judge: Jim Saracino
Umpire: Darrell Jenkins
Side Judge: Jeff Lamberth
Replay Official: Hendy Ancich
Head Linesman: George Hayward
Back Judge: Don Dorkowski
Video Operator: Don Langeloh.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.

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