Most of you know that I've been pretty harsh on the officiating this postseason -- in fact, all season -- and talking head after talking head, fan after fan, coach and player after coach and player have all made the traditional "you can't blame the officials" statement. And so I thought maybe I was overreacting to the officiating in Super Bowl XL -- until I started reading all the other postgame commentaries, analyses and fan reponses. Turns out I was right all along, and it all came to a head (finally) last night.
No, it's not particularly good that it came to a head -- it ruined the biggest game of the year, crowned a paper champion -- but at least it finally is getting the attention it deserves. Because this isn't the one play during the Steelers-Colts game (Troy Polamalu's overturned interception) that ended up not mattering in the outcome. This was a stockpile of truly incredible (read: NOT credible) calls that obviously swayed the course of the game.
Major League Baseball had the 1919 Black Sox, recounted in the movie "Eight Men Out". Will the National Football League have the 2006 Black and White Shirts, to be recounted in "Seven Men Flagged"?
We'll get back to the officiating in a minute, because that wasn't the only blatantly bad execution. Ask yourself, what did it take for Pittsburgh to win this game?
- Ben Roethlisberger was horrible. His passer rating (22.6) barely surpassed his team's total score (21).
- Jerome Bettis couldn't score from inside the 5 (which led to one of the obviously wrong officiating blunders).
- Seattle won the battles of turnovers and time of possession.
- Willie Parker was ineffective except for one play that no one came near him on a 75-yard touchdown run.
- Seattle "just missed" on maybe a half-dozen passes that otherwise torched the Steeler defense. Another handful were called back on more questionable penalties.
- Shaun Alexander was called upon only 20 times, despite a 4.8 average yards per carry.
- Seattle punter Tom Rouen, generally regarded as one of the best in the game, couldn't plant a punt inside the 10 if his life depended on it, constantly giving Pittsburgh better field position. He didn't just miss. He missed badly.
- The "cerebral" Mike Holmgren looked more like Wile E. Coyote at the end of both halves, completely mismanaging the clock, calling bad plays, making all sorts of weird decisions, including a couple that led to relying what I told you in the preview was a suspect field goal kicker, who missed two at the edge of his range. That was a performance that probably has the Chiefs thinking, "Well, at least we don't have Holmgren."
It was so bad, at one point one of the people watching the game with me, said al a the WWE's Jim Ross, "Uh-oh! Is that Bill Cowher's music?" which on professional wrestling shows means an off-screen personality is about to make his individual entrance to the ring. And the NFL indeed looked like the WWE: forced, false, scripted [Writer's note: See, I could have kept the alliterative "fixed" in that sequence, but not only do you disrupt the sequence with "scripted" but you use a word with a softer connotation.].
You know those little books you always see the officials scribbling in. Pats Pulpit obtained a copy of one of those books following Super Bowl XL. Here's what we found: a poem. That's right. A poem. Here's how it read:
Let us count the ways:
With interference offensive, even to us.
With every advantage we gave to the Bus.
With offensive holding penalties galore
That called back at least three big plays or more.
A similar call we made not on the Steel,
Which led to El's touchdown; that was the deal.
And Hasselbeck's tackle we called a bad block?
At least we had not to manipulate the clock.
Why do I write this, you're wonderin'?
The commissioner called, said: "Steeler's win."
Fourth quarter, Pittsburgh holding on with dear life to a fragile 14-10 lead. There's 12:35 left; plenty of time for both teams to score a couple times, if need be. Seattle is driving again, as they had all game long. The Seahawks have the ball 1st-and-10 at the Steeler 19. Hasselbeck hits Jeremy Stevens in traffic at the Steeler 1. It looks like Seattle is going to finally take the lead again. But, wait. There's a feeble offensive holding penalty at the line. Make it 1st-and-20.
Now it's an obvious passing down (instead of a 1-yard dive), and Pittsburgh blitzes. Casey Hampton sacks Hasselbeck for a 5-yard loss. Now it's 2nd-and-25. Seattle tries a draw to catch Pittsburgh offsides, but it only goes for 7.
Still 3rd-and-forever at the 27, Hasselbeck makes desperate attempt at a big play. Ike Taylor intercepts the pass and returns it to the Steelers 29. But, wait! The officials tack on another 15 for an inexplicable illegal block thrown by Hasselbeck (of all people) while (of all things) he's making the tackle!
It's only a couple plays later that Pittsburgh, still up by 4 instead of down by 3, and with great field position, use one of their gadget plays, the Randel El pass, to put the game away. By the way, I think it was tight end Jerame Tuman (had a 4 in his number) pulled to the right to block for Randel El and held an oncoming defender. For all the ticky-tacky holding calls against Seattle, they missed that one. And that, for all intent and purpose, was the game.
We can only hope someone actually does something about this. Hire full-time officials. Train them like the athletes; make it a year-round obligation. Find another way to correct the obvious mistakes. Tweak the replay rules. You'll use replay less if there are fewer blatantly bad calls.
Of course, none of that will help if the fix is in. That's left up to someone else. All any of us can do is begin to catalog the evidence.
Is there anything else for which SB XL will be remembered? I'm having a hard time thinking of anything. Maybe in a few years, we can say that it was just a blip on the Patriots run of what could have been seven straight titles -- if only for the officiating. The only other possibility might be that the clearly better team didn't win. I don't remember any other Super Bowl like that.
The entertainment was bad, and the commercials no better. John Madden was actually insightful for a while, particularly since he and Al Michaels commonly root for Bettis, and yet Madden questioned several officiating calls. I don't think that actually qualifies as "memorable."
No, XL won't be remembered as the SB that was bigger than life. It will hardly be remembered at all, and that's why we can't forget it.