How To Lose a Game in 10 Plays: The Referees of Super Bowl XLIII

Scotty KimberlyAnalyst IFebruary 4, 2009

After every Super Bowl, the losing team and its fans engage in a flurry of “what if” and “what might have been” questions. Super Bowl XLIII has been no different. There has been considerable backlash against the officiating crew of Super Bowl XLIII, as a number of calls were ignored, botched, and/or overturned.
Several articles have accused Terry McAulay & Friends of fixing the game, ruining the game, or just blowing a number of calls. While rhetoric is entertaining for Cardinals fans at the moment (e.g. They’re all out to get us! The only reason we lost is because the NFL screwed us over!), it is important for those not involved in the game to take a closer look at any questionable events.

At skin level, the penalty statistics from Super Bowl XLIII do not seem to endorse a conspiracy theory. Arizona was tagged for 11 penalties totaling 106 yards while Pittsburgh had seven for 56 yards. However, there are a number of factors that can influence the interpretation of these stats.

For example, Arizona was flagged for a personal foul on their own nine-yard line. Originally, this would be a 15-yard penalty, but in the case at hand they were only assessed five yards. On the stat sheet, it will add on a five-yard penalty, but the severity of the call was much greater than that.

If you add those 10 yards, the Cardinals' penalty numbers go up to 11 for 116 (averaging over 10 a penalty). Additionally, Pittsburgh was called for a 15-yard celebration penalty when they took over the ball with eight seconds remaining in the game.

If these 15 yards are removed (as they had no significant impact on the game), the Steelers' penalty numbers fall to six for 41 yards (averaging under seven a penalty).

These two no-calls were a small part of how the Super Bowl XLIII officiating crew took it upon themselves to affect the game. Were these influential? Yes. But were these the only plays that doomed the Cardinals? Certainly Not.

Here is a list of 10 calls that hurt the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. Did Terry McAulay’s crew single-handedly cost the Cardinals the Super Bowl? Probably not, but you decide...

Play No. 1 - Ben Roethlisberger’s Imaginary One Yard Touchdown Run (First Quarter 10:00) – On 3rd-and-Goal from the one-yard line, Mike Tomlin bucked traditional play-calling and dialed up a play-action roll-out pass for QB Ben Roethlisberger.

Finding all of his reads covered, Big Ben lowered his shoulders and tried to barrel through Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett to the end zone. The two fell near the goal line and the side judge immediately signaled a touchdown for the Steelers.

Cardinals Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt challenged the play, and after further review the call on the field was overturned, resulting in a 4th-and-Goal from the one-yard line. The Steelers kicked a field goal to go ahead 3-0.


The Controversy
– In this situation, at least the officiating crew got the call right...eventually. The reason this play is significant is because it was the first drive of the game for the Steelers. While no significant controversy stemmed from this play, notice that the officiating crew managed to botch a call (and force Whisenhunt to risk one of his two precious challenges) on the Steelers first drive.

To call this foreshadowing would be a gross understatement.

 

Play No. 2 – James Harrison’s 100 yard Interception Return for a Touchdown (Second Quarter 0:18) – 1st-and-Goal on the one-yard line in the waning seconds of the first half. Trailing 7-10, the Cardinals had to focus on one goal: at least get some points.

Fate intervened, however, as NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison stepped in front of a Kurt Warner pass and took it 100 yards to the end zone. Instead of a tie game, or even a 14-10 Cardinals lead, the Steelers reached halftime with a 17-7 lead.

The Controversy – Where to begin...On the return, there were two suspicious encounters. First, Kurt Warner was grabbed (by the jersey) and pulled to the ground while trying to force James Harrison out of bounds. This was not an obvious hold, as Warner was pulled down in the middle of a crowd, but the replays clearly showed him being yanked out of the play.

Regardless of that hold, however, the true crime of this play was committed on the Arizona Cardinals 15 yard line. Cardinals RB Tim Hightower had an angle to push Harrison out of bounds as the Steelers entourage rumbled down the field, but as Hightower neared the ball-carrier, LaMarr Woodley placed two hands in Hightower’s back and pushed him to the ground.

No question, rock-solid, no doubt clipping penalty. The bad news is that this textbook clipping call was ignored. The worse news is that instead of calling either of the Pittsburgh infractions, the referees opted to flag Arizona for a 15-yard facemask penalty!

If the play was called correctly, Pittsburgh would have penalized, the Harrison touchdown would have been negated, and the score at half would have been Pittsburgh 10, Arizona 7. A far cry from the 17-7 deficit the Cardinals faced entering the second half.

 

Play No. 3 – Kurt Warner Allegedly Fumbles in a Tuck Rule-esque Play (Third Quarter 11:02) – On 3rd-and-6, Kurt Warner dropped back in the pocket and faced quick pressure from Steelers LB James Farrior. Warner attempted to throw the ball, but his right arm was struck as the ball was released.

The Steelers pounced on what they perceived to be a fumble while the officiating crew made up their minds on what exactly had happened. The umpire hesitated to make a call, but the side judge rushed to the field and signaled a first down for Pittsburgh.

Ken Whisenhunt again threw his challenge flag, and again the call on the field was overturned.

The Controversy – This was not the most influential play of the game, but it was significant nonetheless. This play was one of two in the entire game that was challenged by either coach. Of the two plays challenged, both were calls that went against the Cardinals, and both were found to be incorrect upon further review.

Take it for what you will, but Ken Whisenhunt was forced to risk his timeouts (while trailing) TWICE to make sure that the referees called the game accurately. Mike Tomlin, on the other hand, gave his challenge flag away as a souvenir at half time. No one seemed to notice, however, as he never needed it.

 

Play No. 4 – Big Ben Redefines Intentional Grounding (Third Quarter 7:41) – On 1st-and-10, the Steelers opted to attack the Cardinals via the air. Big Ben stepped back in the pocket and was immediately pressured by two blitzing linebackers. He scanned his reads, found no one, and tossed the ball non-chalantly to the left sideline.

Ben was still in the pocket, and the nearest Pittsburgh receiver may have been running back Willie Parker, who remained in the backfield to block (translation: this ball was thrown to NOWHERE). No flag was thrown for intentional grounding, however, but the Steelers did gain yards on a call that you will read about next.

The Controversy – Not to be repetitive, but let’s review the play. Big Ben was in the pocket. Check. He threw the ball with no apparent intended receiver. Check. That sounds like an air-tight case of intentional grounding.

The refs didn’t see it that way, however, as the Back Judge said after the game, “Intentional Grounding? No, we didn’t see it that way. We were just having too much fun watching our offense play to hinder the drive at that point.” The pass fell incomplete and no intentional grounding was called.

At leas the Steelers burned a down, right? This leads us to the next controversial call.

 

Play No. 5 – Karlos Dansby Flagged For Roughing the Passer (Third Quarter 7:41) – On the previously referenced play, Ben Roethlisberger flung the ball into oblivion and then met up with Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby. Dansby was a few steps from Roethlisberger when the ball was released, followed through his run, and knocked Big Ben to the ground.

The referees flagged Dansby for roughing the passer, adding another fifteen yards to a drive that had already been given a facemask penalty (which was completely legit— Rodgers-Cromartie definitely had a handful of facemask).

The Controversy - There were two potential infractions on the play. One was against Pittsburgh and one was against Arizona. In this case, the one against Pittsburgh was not called, while Arizona had no such luck.

Even if the referees wanted to call the Dansby penalty, they should have also called the intentional grounding, let the penalties offset, and let the teams try and settle the game (not the refs). Ironically, the majority opinion in America is that the calls should have gone the complete opposite way.

The hit by Dansby was a truly “bang-bang” hit, and quick enough after the release to avoid being dirty. Any objective sports reporter would call that roughing penalty either ticky-tack, nit-picky, or just plain wrong (Google it if you don’t believe me).

On the other hand, no one can figure out why Big Ben was not flagged for grounding on that play. Had the calls been made correctly, either the penalties would have negated eachother (if both were called) or the Steelers would have been backed up a considerable distance (if only the grounding was called).

Play No. 6 – Adrian Wilson Flagged for Running Over the Holder (Third Quarter 3:36) – 3rd-and-Goal on the nine-yard line and Ben Roethlisberger misses his target to the left side of the field. This was a small victory for the Cardinals, as they forced the Steelers to kick a field goal for the second time inside of the 10-yard line.

It was all for not, however, as Cardinals S Adrian Wilson ran over Steelers holder Mitch Berger after the ball was kicked. Wilson was flagged for unnecessary roughness, and the Steelers were given half the distance to the goal line and an automatic first down.

The Controversy - I cannot argue that Wilson did not hit Berger. I can, however, argue that this was another ticky-tack call on the same Steelers offensive drive. Wilson pulled up as he neared Berger and as he ran into him Wilson spread his legs and walked over top of him.

This was not “unnecessary roughness” or a malicious intent to take a cheap shot at the holder. Running over the holder is flagged when a player actually hits the holder, not grazes over him.

I found it interesting that Berger was the holder in question here, as his theatrics two weeks ago versus the Ravens earned the Steelers a Roughing the Kicker penalty while punting (Berger earned an Oscar by taking a fall while not being hit).

The Steelers got a first down and three more cracks at the end zone. Their offense sputtered again inside the 10-yard line, however, and after three tries to score they settled for a Jeff Reed field goal.

 

Play No. 7 – James Harrison (Legally) Clubs Kurt Warner in the Head (Fourth Quarter 13:55) – On 3rd-and-13, Kurt Warner dropped back, felt pressure from All-Pro James Harrison, and was forced into a bad pass. As Warner released the ball, Harrison reached out and swatted Warner’s helmet with his arm.

Little attention was given to the play, and as a result of the incompletion the Cardinals were forced to punt.

The Controversy - What no one has mentioned about this Cardinals drive is that a penalty was missed that would have extended the drive. James Harrison delivered a blow to Kurt Warner's head as the ball was released.

While the timing of the hit was legal, delivering a blow to any quarterback’s head is an immediate Roughing the Passer penalty.

No immediate damage was done, as the Steelers took the ball, went three-and-out, and returned it via punt. However, it is unsettling to see a Steelers drive extended by a questionable Roughing the Passer penalty in the Third Quarter, while a Cardinals drive is not afforded the same luxury when the situation arises.

 

Play No. 8 – James Harrison Goes Postal on Aaron Francisco (Fourth Quarter 3:34) – The Cardinals moved the ball down to the Pittsburgh 26 yard line, but were quickly sent backwards as an offensive lineman was called for holding. On 4th-and-20 (from the Pittsburgh 36) the Cardinals chose to play for field position instead of risking a turnover on downs.

The plan worked perfectly, as Punter Ben Graham booted the football inside the 10 yard line where it was downed on the one. As the ball was downed a flag was thrown in the offensive backfield.

The referee declared the following: “After the change of possession, personal foul, No. 92 of the return team, half the distance to the goal, first down Pittsburgh.” Pittsburgh began the drive at their own one-half yard line and subsequently committed a self-inflicted safety.

The Controversy – Everything seemed fine and dandy until the Harrison/Francisco debacle hit the replay screen. James Harrison was shown pushing Francisco while he lay on his stomach, then delivering a concise punch to Francisco’s side. To make matters worse, once Francisco stood up, Harrison grabbed him by the shoulder pads and drove him backwards into the ground.

First and foremost, James Harrison should have been immediately ejected from the game. I’m not saying this would have influenced the game, as the Steelers defense didn’t really do much in the second half anyways, but I’m saying that this play should have been severely punished (I’m sure there will be fines/suspensions coming from Commissioner Goodell).

No one argued that this penalty was undeserved, but the controversy arose when the refs had to determine how the penalty would affect the game. The referee announced this penalty as “after the change of possession,” but the replay clearly shows Harrison punching Francisco before the ball has even been kicked.

Had it been blown dead, the foul would have been announced “After the play,” but instead it was “after the change of possession,” signaling that the foul occurred during the play. I don’t see how James Harrison body-slamming an offensive lineman does not warrant a personal foul to extend the drive, especially in such a crucial drive (only three-and-a-half-minutes left in the game).

The penalty was too soft on Harrison and the referees determination of possession was suspect at best.

 

Play No. 9 – Santonio Holmes’ Touchdown Celebration (Fourth Quarter 0:35) – With 0:35 remaining in the game, Ben Roethlisberger found WR Santonio Holmes by the far sideline of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. The throw was put where only Holmes could get it, and he made a spectacular toe-dragging grab to deliver the winning score.

After he was mobbed by teammates, Holmes stood up to celebrate the touchdown. Using the football as an imaginary bottle, Holmes mimicked LeBron James’ pregame ritual of shaking powder onto his hands and throwing it up in the air.

The Controversy - The NFL has taken a hard stance against excessive celebration in recent years. According to NFL rules, any use of the football as a prop in a touchdown celebration constitutes excessive celebration and is to be penalized 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff.

In Super Bowl XLIII the NFL and the referees had an opportunity to show that they were taking a hard-line against end zone celebrations. Instead, the referees chickened out and kept their flags tucked in tight to their belts.

While I may not have agreed with the call (as it would have been pretty tacky), the bottom line is that any use of the football as a prop is grounds for excessive celebration, and Santonio Holmes indisputably did just that.

If the referees in this game hadn’t been gutless, the Steelers would have been kicking off from their own 15 yard line.

 

Play No. 10 – Kurt Warner Fumbles the Football in the Closing Seconds (Fourth Quarter 0:15) – On 1-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 44, Kurt Warner failed to find an open receiver in his initial reads. This indecision caused him to bounce around the pocket, eventually being gobbled up by LaMarr Woodley.

Warner appeared to throw the ball forward, but the ruling on the field was a fumble and the Steelers took possession to close out the game. While Warner visually objected to the ruling, the replay officials did not deem the play worthy of review. Roethlisberger took a knee, and the Pittsburgh Steelers won their sixth Lombardi Trophy.

The Controversy – Quite possibly, if this play were reviewed, the replay officials would have determined that the call on the field was correct. Much to the discontent of Arizona fans, if the play were overturned the Cardinals would have probably still lost the Super Bowl.

That being said, I find it ridiculous that the NFL did not even offer the formality of reviewing a game-determining play. Had the referee gone to the booth and determined that the call on the field was correct, it would have comforted fans more than leaving the possibility open that referees blew the call and neglected to review it.

Again, if it were overturned by some fluke, odds are that the Steelers would have still held on for victory. But in the closing seconds of a game of this caliber, you have to at least show that every measure was taken to ensure fairness.

 

It was a great game, but I’d be lying if I said I was satisfied with the officiating. Read and react with what you think about the officiating.

sk.

      

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