King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Myth: Seahawks wuz robbed in Super Bowl. Reality: NFL has a serious officiating problem.


A neat little mythology has already grown up around Sunday’s Super Bowl. Within 24 hours of the final gun, the myths had already hardened into cold reality, apparently accepted as fact by a good portion of the football-watching public, which on Super Bowl Sunday pretty much means everybody.

The myth is “The Seahawks Got Robbed by the Officials.”

Reality is often a little less exciting than mythology. The reality is the Super Bowl was a poorly officiated game. Having watched all or significant parts of more than 100 NFL games this season, I wouldn’t call the officiating Sunday unusually bad. It was on the poor side of average. It didn’t cost the Seahawks the game.

Reality is that the real problem isn’t that on-field officials are incompetent or on the take. There’s no reason to believe that NFL officials are not the best in the world at what they do. The real problem here is that NFL fans have lost their confidence in the zebras. They no longer believe in the ability or integrity of the men charged with policing the game.

The NFL can deal with this problem, put a Band-Aid on it or ignore it. We can all guess which it will do. I’m betting on the Band-Aid, and on the problem continuing.

The reality is that the NFL needs to rationalize its rules to rid them of the welter of inconsistencies that confuse and frustrate officials and fans alike, and fix the instant replay system that robs officials of their decisiveness by encouraging them to make the reviewable call, rather than the right one. An official robbed of his decisiveness is also robbed of his authority and effectiveness.

But back to the Myth of the Seahawks Getting Robbed by the Officials.

Seattle didn’t lose because of dropped passes, blown coverages or a key interception, the myth says. The Seahawks didn’t lose because they let Willie Parker run 75 yards for a touchdown without being breathed on or because they squandered precious time and scoring opportunities in both two-minute drills. The Seahawks’ loss wasn’t the result of the Pittsburgh Steelers taking advantage of Seattle’s mistakes by making the big plays at key moments.

No. They lost, according to the myth, because the officials wanted the Steelers to win, and called the game accordingly. Or, less ominously — and less ridiculously — the officials were swayed by the pro-Steelers crowd.

It’s a reality that the Steelers benefited from more bad calls than the Seahawks did, and bigger ones too. But the Seahawks got a gift or two.

And more important, it’s a reality that the Seahawks lost because they played poorly. The Steelers didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory either, but the Seahawks made the bigger mistakes.

The Seahawks admitted that Monday.

“If a team just goes out and overpowers you, then you’re like, ‘Hey, we got beat,’” said defensive lineman Rocky Bernard. “But I think we beat ourselves.”

I think so too. And I’m not the only one.

We lost the football game and we lost it because of the reasons you lose most games,” coach Mike Holmgren said, “mistakes.”

Then he told the crowd at a Qwest Field rally, “We knew it was going to be tough going up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn’t know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well.”

Maybe he changed his mind there. Or maybe he was just pandering to the home crowd. Holmgren’s a smart guy. He knows why his team really lost.

The biggest tall tale from Sunday’s game involves the offensive interference penalty in the end zone against Seattle’s Darrell Jackson. That call negated an apparent touchdown with two minutes left in the first quarter. The Seahawks eventually settled for a field goal and a 3-0 lead.

It’s become gospel that back judge Bob Waggoner only threw his flag after Steelers safety Chris Hope turned to him and begged for it. I’ve read descriptions of Waggoner looking hesitant, confused, as though he had made up his mind to not call anything, but changed it on seeing the result of the play.

Jackson’s clear pushoff is also being described variously as ticky-tack, slight or, in some circles, nonexistent. Jackson claims he never even touched Hope.

Never touched him!

Here’s what happened: Hope was covering Jackson as he tried to get open in the end zone while quarterback Matt Hasselbeck scrambled. They ended up momentarily standing still, facing the line of scrimmage. After a little hand fighting — perfectly legitimate by both men — Jackson reacted to the throw by planting his right hand on the front of Hope’s shoulder pads and extending his arm.

Hope was straightened up by the push, and actually took a little hop in the opposite direction from the force of it. That allowed Jackson to get separation — the very definition of a pushoff.

Waggoner, far from looking hesitant, far from waiting for Hope’s protest, was already reaching for his flag as Jackson hit the ground with the football, having made the catch while going down. The replay from behind the end zone clearly shows that. There was no hesitation. Waggoner whiffed on the flag, looked down to find it in his belt, then reached for it again and threw it. Hope’s protest didn’t start till after the first whiff.

Should it have been called? Was it ticky-tack? I don’t think so. Does that kind of thing go uncalled in the NFL? Sure. Everything does, but I think those who say that penalty never gets called are exaggerating wildly. If Waggoner had called touchdown, Steelers fans would have gone out of their minds, and they would have been right.

Receivers often push off and get away with it when they and the defender are both moving. But standing still — they were bouncing on their toes but otherwise not moving around — five feet in front of an official? No. I keep hearing people say they see this play several times a game with no flag ever flying.

Send me links, folks, send me video clips. Burn a DVD of these plays and send it to Salon’s San Francisco office.

The Jackson play was just one of the complaints of Seahawks fans. Another was the holding penalty on Sean Locklear early in the fourth quarter that wiped out a completion to Jerramy Stevens that would have set up first-and-goal at the 1 for Seattle, then down 14-10.

Was that holding? Well, with apologies to John Madden, who said he didn’t see Locklear clamping down on Clark Haggans’ arm, yeah. Was it the kind of holding penalty that gets ignored all the time? Absolutely. It was also the kind that gets called all the time. Haggans had beaten Locklear to the outside, and had a clear path to the quarterback when he was pulled off-balance by the blocker.

Holding calls are pretty random. If I were a Seahawks fan I’d be steamed about that one. If I were a Steelers fan and that penalty hadn’t been called, I’d have been steamed too.

There were other bad and disputable calls. One of them was on that very same play, when Locklear was flagged for holding. Haggans appeared to be offside, and Seattle center Robbie Tobeck has said he thought so.

I’ve slowed the replay down over and over, and I can’t decide. Haggans definitely moved before his teammates did, and may have been moving before the snap, but I can’t tell if he was in the neutral zone at the snap. But it’s the kind of thing that usually earns an offside flag, deserved or not.

The same thing happened on the next play, when Casey Hampton sacked Hasselbeck. Haggans again moved early, though on this one I’m pretty sure he stayed on the defensive side of the ball before the snap. Again, most of the time, that early movement draws a flag.

The illegal cut-block penalty on Hasselbeck during an interception return was clearly a mistake, since Hasselbeck was making a play on the ballcarrier, in which case hitting low is legal.

On the other hand, Seahawks defensive lineman Bryce Fisher ran down Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on an interception return and sent him sprawling with an illegal block in the back, which went uncalled.

The Seahawks scored their only touchdown with a short field following that interception return. If they’d have been backed up to the 50, they might not have. Remember that when you hear Seahawks fans confidently saying their team was robbed of exactly 11 points — the exact margin of victory — by the calls against Jackson and Locklear.

Seahawks fans are also complaining about Roethlisberger’s touchdown run, when he may or may not have broken the plane of the goal line with the ball. Replay upheld the touchdown call. I think the replay showed the call was correct, but I could be convinced otherwise. Anyone who says he sees definitive proof of touchdown or no on any of the angles we’ve seen so far is either partisan or a liar.

I don’t mean to come off sounding like a Steelers fan, defending the legitimacy of my team’s win. I had no rooting interest in the game, and when that’s the case I tend to root for West Coast teams that aren’t the San Francisco 49ers (personal issues there), and underdogs, which means Seattle twice. But I honestly found myself not caring who won as I watched the game.

I also don’t mean to sound like an apologist for the officials or the league, which will no doubt fine Holmgren for saying what most of its fans outside of western Pennsylvania are thinking.

I think the NFL has a real problem with its officiating, and if anything good comes out of this disappointing Super Bowl, it would be the league’s finally acknowledging that problem.

As I’ve written before, the problem is not that the men in the striped shirts are incompetent. That’s a myth.

The reality is that the league’s impossibly complicated, self-contradictory, counterintuitive hodgepodge of rules, combined with the constant second-guess of instant replay, have turned its officials into timid middle managers, fearful of acting decisively, forever holding committee meetings.

It’s gotten so bad that the NFL has a growing public relations problem on its hands. The Super Bowl was the culmination of a postseason that saw fans hopping mad at the refs time and time again, most notably after the Steelers’ win over the Indianapolis Colts, which was almost scuttled by a blown call that the league eventually acknowledged in an unusual move.

I suspect the league will respond to this problem the way it usually does, by talking it over in committee meetings — the culture of bureaucracy filters down from the corporate suites to the field — and then, if anything, pulling out that Band-Aid, placing some fix on top of the existing rules. Maybe an extra level of review, letting teams challenge penalties like the interference call on Jackson.

So, one more thing to complicate matters, one more reason for the officials not to act decisively.

What the NFL needs is full reform, a rationalization of the rules. Give the officials fewer things to remember. Give them the power to make calls decisively. If you want accountability, try a college-style review system, where the booth decides what to review, then quickly does so.

Somehow, despite the supposed lack of marquee names and teams, this Super Bowl got near-record ratings. Instead of talking about that, the NFL finds the public and the commentariat talking about the officiating. And if the league doesn’t do something real about that officiating and the state of the rules, we’ll be having this conversation again this time every year.

And with each passing year and each controversy, the myth of the incompetent, biased NFL referee will be harder and harder for the league to ignore. At that point, it might as well be reality.

Previous column: Steelers win Super Bowl

- – - – - – - – - – - -

  • Bookmark to get the new Kaufman column every day.
  • Discuss this column and the sports news of the day in Table Talk.
  • To receive the Sports Daily Newsletter, send an e-mail to

  • Featured Slide Shows

    • Share on Twitter
    • Share on Facebook
    • 1 of 7
    • Close
    • Fullscreen
    • Thumbnails
      AP/Jae C. Hong

      Your summer in extreme weather

      California drought

      Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

      A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


      Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

      Darin Epperly

      Your summer in extreme weather

      Great Plains tornadoes

      From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

      "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

      But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

      AP/Detroit News, David Coates

      Your summer in extreme weather

      Michigan flooding

      On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

      Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

      AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

      Your summer in extreme weather

      Yosemite wildfires

      An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

      Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

      Reuters/Eugene Tanner

      Your summer in extreme weather

      Hawaii hurricanes

      Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

      Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


      Your summer in extreme weather

      Florida red tide

      A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

      The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

    • Recent Slide Shows



    Comment Preview

    Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

    You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>