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.
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.
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