Rest In Peace, Super Bowl Controversy – By Viktor Figeczki
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|Okay, let’s face it, Steelers fans, some borderline officiating decisions were made in Super Bowl XL. As we all know, much bile has already been projectile-vomited on the subject. What bothers me most, however, is not the whining of the Seahawks, nor the conspiracy theories of their newfound fans (some of whom believe the NFL deliberately handed victory to Jerome Bettis as a publicity stunt), nor the many jibes at the manner in which Pittsburgh won from the media (FoxSports.com’s Funhouse, for example, suggested the Steelers buy the Super Bowl refs gold whistles as part of their ring ceremony).
No, what really burrows under my skin, like some tropical parasite, is the thought of my beloved Steelers not deserving their fifth Lombardi trophy – that, after having disposed of the mighty Colts and the previously undefeated-at-home Broncos, they couldn’t get it done against the limp NFC representative.
This fear prompted me too review, for one final time, each controversial decision made in the Super Bowl. For better or for worse, I’m in need of closure. So follow me, if you please, through the looking-glass to …
CONTROVERSIAL DECISION NO. 1: The Roethlisberger Touchdown
Did the ball break the goal-line? Big Ben has been quoted as saying he isn’t so sure – but, honestly, how would he know? He was busy watching 241 pound linebacker D.D. Lewis charging at him with helmet and pads lowered.
Personally, I believe the replay shows the top of the ball, visible above Roethlisberger’s arm, penetrating the end zone before the QB is pushed back. It is a debatable issue, though, since the slow motion replay isn’t conclusive beyond any reasonable doubt.
But that, boys and girls of Starbucks-land, is exactly why the field judge cannot be accused of bad officiating. If not even hundred thousand dollar equipment can provide an unambiguous verdict, the question of whether the ball crossed the line or not has no right or wrong answer. In these circumstances, the goal-line official should be given the benefit of the doubt. He watched the play from a different angle than the camera and presumably spotted something the footage doesn’t reveal.
Undeniably, the 2005 postseason was marred by dubious officiating, which has spawned a witch-hunt against NFL referees. The spark that ignited the pyre happened in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, when New England cornerback Asante Samuel was called for pass interference, although the contact between him and the Denver wide receiver appeared incidental.
When it comes to the Roethlisberger touchdown, however, there is no evidence damning the referees’ decision (which was precisely why the call wasn’t overturned as a result of Seattle’s challenge). The flag cast against the officials by the media and Mike Holmgren, in this case, should be waved off.
CONTROVERSIAL DECISION NO. 2: Offensive pass interference on WR Darrell Jackson
Slow motion replay shows Jackson gently putting a hand on Chris Hope’s chest – no biggie, right? Certainly not worthy of a seven point punishment. But if the video is played at normal speed, it is clear that Chris Hope loses some of his forward momentum due to the touch.
Would Hope have been able to prevent the completion if he had not been contacted? Nobody knows. Nobody needs to know. The issue is that the Seattle wide receiver created an unfair advantage for himself by pushing off, and that constitutes pass interference.
What’s more, it happened right in front of the back judge. What was the poor guy supposed to do? Ignore it? He’s officiating on the biggest stage in pro football! A dozen cameras and several million eyes are trained on him at that very moment. Believe you me, had he not called P.I., he and his children and his children’s children would have felt the wrath of those volatile landscape architects that redecorated Tommy Maddox’s lawn. More significantly, by allowing the touchdown, his professional competence would have come under the exact same scrutiny that was provoked by his nullifying the score. He was in a no-win situation.
Again, the right – not to mention difficult – decision was made.
CONTROVERSIAL DECISION NO. 3: The Sean Locklear Holding Call
This penalty negated a play that would have given Seattle first-and-goal on the Pittsburgh one-yard line. It’s the kind of situation where Vegas bookies give even money that the Seahawks come away with seven points, considering that they had MVP Shaun Alexander (27 touchdowns in 2005) running the ball.
But that’s not the only ‘what-if’ applicable on this play. Pittsburgh outside linebacker Clark Haggans anticipated the snap perfectly and looked like he would have put pressure on quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, or even sacked him, had he not been illegally impeded by Locklear.
Experts have been quick to point out that the “illegal” move made by the right tackle is one that has been largely ignored by officials during the regular season. I sympathize with that; the Seawhawks were victims of inconsistent policy. But the fact remains that NFL officiating is not founded on common law. There is a rule book, full of clear-cut statutes, paragraphs and sub-sections, and the referee who threw the flag correctly interpreted the rules as they are printed. Simply because other refs have been lax, players and coaches should not count on that happening in the biggest game of the year, when the officiating crew is under a microscope.
As in the Jackson incident, had the refs let Locklear get away with it, the media and Pittsburgh fans would have been crying about Haggans being robbed of a sack instead of Seattle being robbed of a touchdown. As the rules stand, this outcome was the lesser of two wrongs.
CONTROVERSIAL DECISION NO. 4: The Matt Hasselbeck “Low-Block” Call
Okay, the officials unequivocally goofed this call. Any Pittsburgh fan with a milligram of integrity will admit that. Hasselbeck tackled cornerback Ike Taylor and barely made incidental contact with the blocking player. There is simply no excuse for this penalty.
It should be noted, however, that the difference in field position for the Steelers offense would have been 15 yards only. Considering that Ike Taylor just made a drive-killing interception in the red zone, 15 yards do not seem like that big a deal.
Besides, when Pittsburgh had an unfair call go against them in the Indianapolis matchup (the Troy Polamalu interception of Peyton Manning), the team never gave in. Even while the play was being reviewed, Cowher calmly coached for the worst-case scenario, to the amazement of Polamalu, who didn’t believe there was any risk that the ball would be returned to the Colts.
A week later, against Denver, when Hines Ward’s illegal actions erased a touchdown, Pittsburgh scored on the very next play from a greater distance. That’s what champions do. They refuse to be denied.
While the call on Hasselbeck was grossly unfair, it was not a game-changing incident. The preceding interception was. The penalty merely rubbed salt in Seattle’s wound. But instead of using it as motivation, the Seahawks just curled up in the fetal position and started sucking their thumbs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that’s what champions do.
Much has been made of the influence the referees’ decision had on Super Bowl XL. The cumulative effect of the borderline calls, several sportswriters have said, was a “14-point swing” in favor of the Steelers.
Not so fast, folks. By my calculations, if you miss out on two touchdowns and kick a field goal in lieu of one of them (the drive on which Darrell Jackson was called for P.I. resulted in a kick that split the uprights), that equates to an eleven point swing. Which, at best, would have tied the game. And that’s assuming the Locklear holding was unwarranted.
Now, weighing up each team’s ability to come through in clutch situations, does anyone truly believe that Seattle would have come away with a victory? Let’s look at their track-record in the game: How many passes did Jerammy Stevens drop? How poor was Hasselbeck’s clock management at the end of both halves? How many field goals did Josh Brown miss? Why did Seatlle’s defense not stay at home on the Randle El pass when they knew something like that was coming? Why did Hines Ward have a step on his man on third-and-a-million? Why did the ‘Hawks allow Willie Parker to run 75 yards untouched for a score?
The supposed “errors” of the Super Bowl may well have affected history, but not in the way popularly perceived. Perhaps enough lobbying will happen for the NFL to introduce an option to challenge penalties. Perhaps full-time officials will be hired in the future. Perhaps the league will review what precisely constitutes holding and pass interference.
As for the Steelers winning their fifth title, that was certainly not an error.
Journalists and Monday morning analysts aren’t interested in writing fair and unbiased editorials on how nothing would have been different if those borderline calls had gone the other way. That makes for uninteresting copy. They want to drum up reader interest and escalate controversy. The truth is, however, that the officiating in the Super Bowl was nowhere near as bad as it has been made out to be, and though the mildly disparate quality of the Steelers and the Seahawks was in no way reflected in the lopsided scoreline, the outcome of the game cannot be attributed to the “zebras” wearing strips of black-and-gold rather than black-and-white.
The Steelers are no jewelry thieves, and Mike Holmgren, unlike Heather Mills McCarthy, doesn’t have a leg to stand on.