Steelers vs. Seahawks: Examining the Controversial Calls of Super Bowl XL
Who wouldn't have loved to be inside official Bill Leavy's head when he received his Week 2 NFL assignment? The man at the center of controversy in Super Bowl XL will again officiate a critical Seahawks-Steelers showdown.
While the magnitude of the pending affair pales by comparison, the odd coincidence serves as a catalyst for good and bad memories alike to rush back into the minds of those whose feelings were at stake that fateful night.
Fans in Pittsburgh say to get over it. Loyal Seahawks backers cannot get past it. February 5, 2006 conjures a dichotomy of emotions, ranging from nostalgia to regret, depending on which side of the championship loyalties rested.
As the two teams prepare to face off this Sunday for the second time since that fateful evening, fans differ on their perspective. While many choose to focus on the matchups of a new contest, dissecting each team's current strengths and weaknesses, others can't (or won't) let Super Bowl XL completely rest on its page in history, arguing for or against an asterisk that will never stamp itself.
No matter which perspective you support, it cannot be argued that the rivalry amongst fans heading into this key battle of 0-1 squads largely stems from the events of that winter night over a half decade ago.
The rosters have changed, but the memories fuel the intensity of the affair. Pittsburgh passion tells a tale of tough but correct and fair calls against an opponent that came up short in the clutch. Seattle skepticism speaks to the terrible officiating of Bill Leavy, whose timely and controversial (if not altogether wrong) decisions turned the game in the Steelers' favor.
While both fan bases have waged a battle over the game's outcome, few recaps of these events have taken a fair and unbiased look at every debated moment in the NFL's pinnacle game of the 2005-06 season. Ahead is an examination of these controversies, followed by an overview of the end result.
In truth, tomorrow's game will not put to rest any Super Bowl demons, nor will it end the northwestern notion of a fix. Yet, just as a 21-0 shellacking of Seattle gave Steelers fans reason to respond with a boisterous "I told you so!," tomorrow's affair will ultimately be another chance for Seattle fans to strike back, albeit never so damagingly as at Ford Field on an equally cold (Seattle) and warm (Pittsburgh) Detroit night.
Hopefully, breaking down the events as they happen will at least appease those in the masses who desire for the truth, and perhaps even pacify those passionate cries of "Foul!" all these years later.
A Steelers Gripe: The Jeremy Stevens "Fumble"
In a game that Seattle fans view as a conspiracy, many Steelers fans have a gripe regarding an incomplete pass ruling in favor of the steel blue, dark navy and neon green. For those confused, that is the color scheme of the Seahawks.
The Controversy: Early in the game, some Steelers fans felt tight end Jeremy Stevens had a fumble ruled as an incomplete pass.
The Event: Stevens appeared to catch a pass from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, take three steps, and then have the ball dislodged.
The Examination: Had the tight end, who was called out by linebacker Joey Porter earlier in the week for being "soft," had a firm grip and control of the football, the dislodging would have constituted a fumble. After all, he had taken multiple steps after receiving the ball from Hasselbeck.
The Proof: As Stevens is bringing the ball into his body from his hands, the football moves, demonstrating a lack of control and thus negating possession prior to the alleged "fumble."
The Verdict: The officials, largely scrutinized during a game of close calls, got this ruling 100 percent correct.
Offensive Pass Interference: Darrell Jackson
The Controversy: Darrell Jackson was flagged for a rare offensive pass interference call against Steelers cornerback Chris Hope, a ruling ridiculed for factors such as severity, intention and frequency of the call.
The Event: Many of the believers who feel Seattle was robbed of a victory in Super Bowl XL remember the first quarter of the game, a segment in which the Steelers offense didn't obtain a single first down and a rhythmic Seattle offense moved the ball with efficiency.
With Pittsburgh's vaunted defense on its heels, Hasselbeck threw another fine pass in what was becoming a fine first quarter for the Seahawks west coast general. Darrell Jackson caught it in the endzone, pulling away from the defender in apparently giving Seattle a 7-0 lead.
Then, the yellow hanky fell to the field. A curious Seattle offense turned to Bill Leavy, who announced the call...
Offensive pass interference.
As a result of the ruling, Seattle's lead was limited to a field goal.
The Examination: A close examination of the play shows that Hope had close coverage, keeping with Jackson throughout the play.
At the time Jackson reaches his arms out toward Hopeand nudges him "gently" (as many Seattle fans might describe), the damage is not evidenced by the severity of his motion—but by the momentum of the defender.
Hope's body stiffens, his hips and legs move backward as he loses leverage, allowing Jackson—whose own momentum was thus opposed to the direction of the defender—to separate himself from the corner and catch the football.
The Proof: Watch the impeded progress of the covering defender at the moment of contact by Jackson.
The Verdict: An appropriate call, much like the offensive interference penalty against Dallas's Michael Irvin in Super Bowl XXX, the infraction changed the momentum of two players engaged in an individual battle on the most important segment of the field—the endzone.
The penalty highlighted an obvious violation by Jackson, whose actions were illegal despite the argued non-flagrancy of the act.
The Holding Call
The Controversy: A holding call in the fourth quarter prevented Seattle from having an opportunity from the 1-yard line to take the lead, trailing 14-10.
The Event: After having a chance to take a 21-3 lead midway through the third quarter, Ben Roethlisberger threw arguably the worst pass of his career, an interception in the endzone that was returned deep into Pittsburgh territory.
Seattle cut Pittsburgh's lead to 14-10, and they moved the ball into the Steelers' side of the field again at the start of the fourth quarter.
It appeared as though the Seahawks would have a first-and-goal after a throw to Jeremy Stevens, but the holding call that brought the ball back was the decision that had fans in the state of Washington proclaiming that a fix was in the mix!
The Examination: While Clark Haggans got behind Sean Locklear heading toward the passer, the lineman used his arm to slow down the Steelers linebacker. While there appeared to be no holding, Seattle fans also point to the fact Haggans was offside, arguing that a bad call was made against Seattle while a good call was overlooked that would have gone against Pittsburgh.
The Proof: Our eyes can be deceptive While it can be argued that Haggans was offsides on the play (another close call), it can also be shown that Locklear did hold. If ruled correctly, offsetting penalties would have negated the play anyway.
The Verdict: Locklear held. Haggans was offsides. Even if Seattle was robbed by a bad call, as Seahawks fans would naturally argue, it was no excuse for the fact that...(next slide)
"Seattle Sour Grapes"
HASSELBECK CHOKED! Period.
In the video above, Bill Hillgrove talks about a great book title, and he dubs it "Seattle Sour Grapes."
After the holding call against Locklear, Seattle did nothing to minimize the damage or to demonstrate their ability to overcome adversity. In fact, they robbed themselves of key points, as Matt Hasselbeck threw an errant toss into the hands of Ike Taylor.
All notions of a championship robbery have to be treated as cynicism at best whenever the accusers clearly buckle under pressure.
Ben Roethlisberger's Touchdown Run
The Controversy: At the end of the first half, many fans believe that Ben Roethlisberger did not score a touchdown on his bootleg run as the ball did not cross the goal line.
The Event: Trailing 3-0 and having played anemically on offense, the sophomore quarterback from Pittsburgh showed great aplomb on a scramble to the left, stopping at the line of scrimmage and completing a pass across the field to Hines Ward on third-and-long.
The magnificent play set up a sequence of downs in which the Seattle defense responded proudly. The third play, however, was a quarterback bootleg, and Ben Roethlisberger dove toward the goal line on a touchdown run that was a matter of inches—if that!
The Examination: Skeptics of the call cite that Roethlisberger placed the ball over the goal line after he landed short of the endzone. To focus on this action shows an ignorance of the ruling, as the events that transpired after Ben fell to the ground are irrelevant to the ruling.
Many argue that his decision to move the football indicated his own belief that he didn't score on the play.
His decision to stretch the ball was a competitive natural reaction, but it did not demonstrate any knowledge on his part that the football didn't cross the plane of the goal line—the action was too close to see with a naked eye during the action on the field. From Ben's point of view, it would have been impossible to determine.
In reality, any portion of the football going across‚—or simply touching—the front (invisible) plane of the goal line at any point during the play would result in a touchdown. During the deepest point of Ben's lunge, before being knocked backward, the location of the nose of the football is the determining factor.
The Proof: While various charts and geometrical measures have been used to try to determine the accuracy of the call, the angle of the camera plays tricks and there was no 100 percent definitive way to overrule the ruling on the field of a touchdown. Of most importance, however, is to view the play while Ben is lunging, trying to determine if any part of the ball crossed any part of the white line while Roethlisberger was in the air.
The Verdict: It appears the nose of the football crossed the goal line by a fractional margin. Nevertheless, with no definitive evidence to the contrary, the play was appropriately (and I believe correctly) called a touchdown.
Holding and Other Misses: The Result of Bad Non-Calls in Every NFL Game
Like any NFL game, the result of action on the field isn't limited to the plays that stand out and make the highlight reels. Many actions, large and small, comprise the end result, and violations are missed in every contest.
The Controversy: Many fans, frustrated in an argument regarding the game, have argued that the Steelers or Seahawks were reprieved by infractions that were not called, such as various offensive holding calls.
The Event: As stated above, any NFL football game has a few calls that are missed, and fans often resort to the most minor infractions to justify their stance on how/why a football game was won or lost .
The Examination: Offensive holding is specifically the most frequently missed of all infractions in the game of football. While we have faith in officials to correctly enforce violations for the obvious holds, many subtle violations are overlooked in the course of every football contest at every level—from high school through the professional ranks.
Beyond holding, calls are missed on both sides of NFL games, but typically these infractions that are not rules against balance themselves out.
The Proof: Expert examinations of the game film, including a review by Football Outsiders, an objective third party, show as many as double non-holding calls against Seattle as against the Steelers.
Additionally, while Seattle was incorrectly called for a low block after a key Matt Hasselbeck interception, they were spared from a penalty when Ben Roethlisberger was blocked in the back during a return of a key pick in the third quarter.
The Verdict: To make broad assessments regarding the outcome of an NFL game on the few or least serious of missed calls is counter-intuitive to the notions of personal accountability that winning teams demand from their players.
The Low Block
The Controversy: A holding call in the fourth quarter prevented Seattle from having an opportunity from the 1-yard line to take the lead, trailing 14-10.
The Event: After throwing a damaging interception in the fourth quarter, Matt Hasselbeck did not give up on the play. He returned, diving to tackle Ike Taylor and prevent further inflected damage.
Nevertheless, the damage control was not as successful as the quarterback would have liked, as a low block was called on Hasselbeck.
The Steelers took control of the football near midfield.
The Examination: Hasselbeck went low on a tackle, and with other Steelers in the vicinity, it seems apparent that the referees eyes deceived him. In any case, the Steelers secured an obvious interception, and rightfully had the football with an opportunity to put the game away.
The Proof: The image shows Hasselbeck was nowhere near any eligible player to which he could throw an illegal block. His intention was clearly in tackling the runner, Taylor.
The Verdict: While this was a bad call, it had little impact on the outcome, because....(next slide)
The Reverse Touchdown
....Hines Ward was wide open on a touchdown pass from Randle El. While Seattle defenders closed the gap with Ward after his reception, he ran unobstructed into the endzone.
At best, the Steelers have the football deep in Seattle territory, though it would be difficult to find any realistic person who believes Pittsburgh wasn't going to score on the magnificently executed gadget play, albeit from 50 or 65 yards.
Immediately following the catch, the corner's momentum was carrying him slightly away from Ward toward the sidelines, while Hines aggressively pursued the touchdown. Even minus 15 grace yards, the Steelers would have secured a 21-10 lead on the key play of Super Bowl XL.
As such, the call on Hasselbeck was largely irrelevant. In either case, the Steelers offense possessed the ball far enough up the field to attempt a play that they clearly kept up their sleeve for the perfect moment.
At that perfect time, they executed the gadget to perfection.
Final Analysis: Champions Overcome Adversity
Of all teams, the 2005 Steelers and their fans cannot be labeled as hypocrites as it concerns the notion that "Seattle should have overcome controversy to win."
In fact, the Pittsburgh Steelers defined that notion in those playoffs.
Against the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Playoffs, Troy Polamalu intercepted Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter. Upon rising from the RCA Dome turf, the safety's knee dislodged the ball from his arms, though he did fall on it and secure possession for Pittsburgh.
The officials ruled the pass as incomplete, and the Colts turned what could have become a 28-10 blowout into a competitive football game.
Later in the game, Jerome Bettis—in a moment completely out of character—fumbled at the goal line after a series of sacks on Manning set the Steelers offense up with an opportunity to put the game away.
It was not a moment indicative of a champion, but the aftermath of the events showcased the team's mettle.
Ben Roethlisberger wisely and immediately started backwards, tackling Nick Harper, who was in perfect position to score the game-winning touchdown with only the Pittsburgh quarterback able to stop him.
With the ball in Manning's hands, the Colts quarterback attempted to guide his offense to the winning score. The defense held, including excellent coverage on Reggie Wayne during a Manning pass attempt into the endzone.
Mike Vanderjagt missed a game-tying field goal, and the Steelers overcame a fourth quarter rife with adversity to win in Indianapolis.
Fittingly, two weeks later at the Super Bowl, the Steelers played against a Seattle team that displayed the opposite tendency in critical situations.
While most of the controversial calls were accurate, Seattle fans will always point to one holding call and an odd flag against their quarterback as the deciding factors in their loss. Lost in this assessment is their quarterback's immediate interception following the assessed holding infraction, and the irrelevance of the low block considering the nature of the subsequent touchdown.
Further, Seattle never capitalized on a fast start, while Pittsburgh overcame a sluggish beginning. Ben Roethilisberger, with a chance to put Seattle in a huge deficit, gift-wrapped the Seahawk's chance to win the game with an inexcusable interception in the second half.
For their gratitude, the Seahawks allowed a couple of close calls to be their undoing, proven by their response.
In fact, Pittsburgh's lone first half touchdown was set up against adversity, as Ben Roethlisberger made an amazing play to Hines Ward near the goal line after a series of setbacks set up third and long yardage.
How did Seattle fare in a similar circumstance?
Was it not the Steelers that ran the clock out in the final minutes?
Was it not Seattle that blew clock management at the end of the first half, missed two long field goals, and had over nine minutes to respond against a Steelers defense that stuffed them late in the game?
At the end of the day, in a contest full of close calls and one questionable flag, it was the Steelers whose championship pedigree was showcased during the game's critical moments.
Super Bowl XL was a poorly executed contest, but it was not poorly officiated. In a game filled with sloppy play, Pittsburgh saved its best execution for the most important moments, culminating in a touchdown pass for the ages to put the game away.
THE VERDICT: Champions win.