Urban Legends of the NFL: The Fixing of Super Bowl XL

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 26, 2016

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dives for the endzone during the matchup between the Steelers and the Seahawks for Super Bowl XL at Ford Field, in Detroit, Michigan on February 6th, 2006.  The Steelers won 21-10. (Photo by Larry Maurer/Getty Images)
Larry Maurer/Getty Images

The football world was in a state of chaos. The Steelers had just stolen Super Bowl XL from the Seahawks with the help of some shockingly one-sided officiating. 

Fans and sportswriters alike howled about phantom flags and imaginary touchdowns. Seahawks fans were livid. Steelers fans went on the defensive. Many neutral observers were left feeling a little queasy. Or suspicious.

And where was Mike Pereira, the NFL's supervisor of officiating, the one man with the knowledge and authority to assure the world that Super Bowl XL wasn't a modern reboot of the 1919 World Series?

"The morning after the game, the 6 a.m. flight out of Detroit, I caught a plane to Costa Rica," Pereira told me.

There's your smoking gun, Super Bowl XL conspiracy theorists! Having schemed to hand the Steelers a 21-10 victory, Pereira fled to Central America, presumably with a satchel full of Dan Rooney's money, to sip pina coladas served from the backs of tortoises far from the consequences of the greatest swindle in modern sports history.

Except that it's not true.

Well, except for the part about Pereira's flying to Central America hours after the final gun.

He had scheduled a vacation for immediately after the NFL season. Perhaps a littletooimmediately. "I landed in Costa Rica, and the next thing I know, I am getting emails from [NFL Vice President] Greg Aiello saying, 'Where the hell are you?'" Pereira recalled.

The Ford Field crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Steelers.
The Ford Field crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Steelers.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Explanations of the officiating during Super Bowl XL had to wait until Pereira returned. In the meantime, Seahawks fans replayed their DVR recordings of the dubious calls over and over again in disappointment and disgust. They heard their head coach blame the referees for the loss. Many reached a simple conclusion: The NFL wanted the Steelers to win because of the team's huge national fanbase, or perhaps because of the power and influence of the Rooney family. So the league nudged the officials to give the Steelers an edge.

Your thoughts, Mr. Pereira?

"For anyone to suggest that there was any type of conscious moment or feeling of wanting the Steelers to win is just ludicrous. Those things just don't happen."


Smelling of Orchestration

This is an urban legend about whether or not Super Bowl XL was fixed. It is not about the quality of the officiating, a topic that would only reopen fresh wounds and tired debates.

That said, let's take a look back at what made Super Bowl XL so controversial 10 years ago.This NFL Top 10 segmentabout Super Bowl XL makes a handy visual aid if you want yet another look at some of the game's most criticized plays.

The Steelers went 11-5 during the 2005 season. The Seahawks went 13-3. The Steelers overcame a three-game midseason losing streak to reach the playoffs as a wild card and beat the favored Colts and Broncos to reach the Super Bowl. The Seahawks coasted through the regular season and playoffs. Despite the records and pedigrees, the Steelers entered the game as four-point favorites, according to Odds Shark.

Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis, a native of the host city of Detroit, became the unofficial ambassador of sorts for Super Bowl XL. Detroit's mayor declared Super Bowl Week "Jerome Bettis Week." The state of Michigan declared the Wednesday before the game "Jerome Bettis Day." Bettis even received the key to the city. "If it's not all Bettis, all the time, in the days leading to Super Bowl XL, it sure seems that way," Jarrett Bell wrote in USA Today.

Jerome Bettis received the key to the city of Detroit days before his Steelers won Super Bowl XL in controversial fashion.
Jerome Bettis received the key to the city of Detroit days before his Steelers won Super Bowl XL in controversial fashion.CARLOS OSORIO/Associated Press/Associated Press

Detroit is a cheap flight or a four-hour drive from Pittsburgh, and the Steelers have a massive national fanbase, so it's no surprise that the Steelers were well represented in a "neutral" stadium. "There were RVs and Winnebagos with Pennsylvania license plates all over the streets of Motown as Steeler Nation turned Super Bowl XL into a private party of gold and black," Dan Shaughnessy wrote in the Boston Globe.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, did not yet have marketable stars such as Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman, colorful uniforms or the cachet of cool they now enjoy. Their best players were on the offensive line. They didn't have much "sizzle."

Broadcaster Al Michaels estimated during the telecast that the crowd at Ford Field consisted of 80 percent Steelers fans. As Shaughnessy reported, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck placed the figure at 90 percent. Terrible Towels waved everywhere. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended the game and made no secret of the fact that she was rooting for the Steelers. It was easy for a Seahawks fan to feel slighted, disrespected or simply forgotten as kickoff approached.

Those feelings would soon get far worse once the action on the field began.

Darrell Jackson arguing with officials during Super Bowl XL
Darrell Jackson arguing with officials during Super Bowl XLPAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

Late in the first quarter of a scoreless game, an apparent touchdown pass from Hasselbeck to Darrell Jackson was negated by an offensive pass interference foul against Jackson. The Seahawks settled for a field goal.

At the two-minute warning of the first half, Ben Roethlisberger attempted a quarterback sneak on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Roethlisberger landed with his helmet in the end zone and the rest of his body (plus the football) short of a touchdown. The side judge hesitated and then signaled a touchdown. The score was upheld during a review.

With the Steelers leading 14-10 early in the fourth quarter, a Hasselbeck completion to Jerramy Stevens at the 1-yard line was negated by a holding penalty on offensive lineman Sean Locklear. Pittsburgh linebacker Clark Haggans appeared to be offsides, forcing Locklear to reach out to protect Hasselbeck, but there was no call against Haggans to offset the fouls.

Three plays after the Locklear penalty, Ike Taylor intercepted a Hasselbeck pass. Hasselbeck was somehow flagged for a low block on the return. The extra 15 penalty yards gave the Steelers the ball near midfield, setting up a quick touchdown that put the game out of reach.

To summarize in conspiratorial terms: A popular team that was mysteriously favored to win the game received a two-touchdown swing on iffy first-half calls and then enjoyed an additional double whammy of mysterious calls that quashed a late-game comeback by its opponent.

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said what much of the football world was thinking when he addressed Seattle fans at a rally a few days after Super Bowl XL. "We knew it was going to be tough going against the Pittsburgh Steelers," he said. "I didn't know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well."

Referee Bill Leavy, crew chief for Super Bowl XL, reignited the controversy when he visited Seahawks training camp four years later in August 2010. "It was a tough thing for me," he said. "I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter, and I impacted the game, and as an official, you never want to do that."

Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren was upset about the officiating in Super Bowl XL days after the game.
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren was upset about the officiating in Super Bowl XL days after the game.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The NFL quickly distanced itself from Leavy's remark. "Bill's personal comments speak for themselves, and we see no reason to add to them," Aiello said.

Seattle writer John Morgan summed up the feelings of the local fans in his book 100 Things Seahawks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die: "I was devastated when Seattle lost Super Bowl XL, not because the Seahawks lost, but because the game felt fixed. … It just felt too one-sided, too partial." (Morgan clarifies in his book that he does not think the game was fixed. It just really felt that way.)

Boston writer Tom Curran provided a national perspective on Super Bowl XL on NFL Network's NFL Top 10 program: "You talk about a game smelling of orchestration. That game stunk to high heaven. It left you feeling dirty by the time you turned it off."

If that's how an experienced neutral observer felt about the game, imagine what the conspiracy fringe thought.


Proving the Negative

The NFL does not fix its games. People who believe that it does are generally misinformed or—judging from the emails I have received over the years—a little off-kilter.

I won't link to the typical "NFL is fixed" website. You can search the internet yourself if you enjoy bold-type rants and weird after-the-fact explanations of how every Jaguars-Titans October game is part of a rich tapestry of deceit.

It is very hard to prove, however, that the NFL does not fix its games. That's called "proving a negative," and it's impossible if the folks you are trying to convince move the goal posts of "proof" way out of field-goal range, as hardcore conspiracy believers always do. A conspiracymonger can keep claiming that the league, officials, coaches, broadcasters, quarterbacks, politicians and aliens are in on the fix no matter how much evidence you give them. Heck, it's impossible to prove that we all don't live in the Matrix and none of this is real.

One thing we can do is talk to someone who, in the event of an actual conspiracy to fix the most watched sporting event in America, would at least have been copied on a few memos.

"If there was a fix from an officiating standpoint, who would it go through?" Pereira asked me rhetorically.

In February 2006, such a fix, if handed down from the league brass, would have gone through Pereira.

"That's right, it would go through me. So you've come to the source. Let's put Mike Pereira on the lie detector test!"

The lie detector test is unavailable, unreliable and probably unnecessary.

"If anyone would ever have come to me and said something like that who had any authority in the league—I don't care if it was the commissioner—I would leave my desk immediately and walk away from my job. I would have been out on Park Avenue in five minutes and have never returned."

Mike Pereira was the supervisor of officiating for the NFL in 2005.
Mike Pereira was the supervisor of officiating for the NFL in 2005.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Of course, that's exactly what Pereira would say if he was in on the fix up to his eyeballs.

I can vouch for both Pereira's honesty and his absolute dedication to the officiating craft. I could also speak to the absolute logistical unlikelihood of a systematic effort to fix a Super Bowl and the fact that NFL executives, for all of their many, many, many sins, genuinely value the integrity of the sport itself.

But I am a media member, and anyone who knows anything about conspiracies knows that "the media" (we're all on one email chain) is always in on the conspiracy.

But Super Bowl XL skeptics are not all cranks, angry Seahawks fans or snarky Urban Dictionary contributors. As Curran said, the game looked fixed. Writing for Football Outsiders in 2006, I criticized the "absolutely, viciously terrible officiating," while Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz spoke to just how suspicious the game felt. "You don't want to think about conspiracies, but it just seemed like for two weeks, the league, ABC/ESPN, the city of Detroit and the NFL wanted the Seahawks to just go away so the Steelers could have the title," he said.

We're not senseless people. So why did Super Bowl XL tempt us to believe some ridiculous things?


Myths in Football Officiating

Some of the fix-conspiracy theories can be dismissed through sheer common sense:

  • The NFL wanted the more popular team to win. Less popular teams win big games all the time. If the size of the fanbase determined success, the Cowboys would win every other year, and there would be a perennial powerhouse in Los Angeles.
  • The NFL favored the Rooney family. If Deflategate has taught us anything, it's that league-versus-owner politics is an ever-bubbling cauldron of unpredictable intrigue. No one gets a free Super Bowl in exchange for "loyal service" or anything. And if the NFL gives prime consideration to its founding families, it is news to the Cardinals and Lions.
  • The fact that the Steelers were favored is evidence of a fix. Gamblers don't want a team to be favored when they fix a game. Underdogs provide better moneylines and a point-spread safety net if a hypothetical fix goes south. The "house" in Vegas, meanwhile, wants even money on both sides of a bet, which is one reason why the Steelers were favorites in Super Bowl XL: Casual bettors favored the more recognizable team, so the spread helped to sweeten the deal on the other side.
  • The makeup of the crowd suggests a fix. Steelers fans did not have to arrange air travel to attend the Super Bowl. Theoretically, they could leave for the game Sunday morning and (very theoretically) return for work Monday morning. From a financial standpoint, a typical Steelers fan was in much better position to purchase a Super Bowl ticket than a typical Seahawks fan, who would have to book a flight, several hotel nights, days off from work and so on. Lots of casual-fan corporate VIPs also attend every Super Bowl, and such attendees would be far more likely to root for the storied Steelers than some team that was barely getting any media attention.

The Steelers' popularity and proximity affected many elements of Super Bowl XL, from the Vegas line to the media spotlight. But could it have impacted the officiating, whether consciously or subconsciously?

Pereira still defends the work of Leavy and his crew. "Was it a great officiated game? I would say 'probably not,'" he said. "Was it one of the worst I have ever seen? Certainly not. But was there a bunch of controversial calls? There were. But that game didn't have any more mistakes than a normal football game has."

Pereira vehemently defends the Jackson pass interference call. "I was thinking to myself had they not called that, I would have given them a downgrade for not calling it," he said. Pereira thinks the Roethlisberger touchdown would have been less controversial if officials did not hesitate before signaling the score. He said he was "OK" with Locklear's holding call. Only the Hasselbeck low block was a real mistake among the most controversial calls, according to Pereira; that penalty was almost certainly one of the two "kicked" calls Leavy later admitted to.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was among many on the Seahawks sideline who were displeased with the officials in Super Bowl XL.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was among many on the Seahawks sideline who were displeased with the officials in Super Bowl XL.Harry How/Getty Images

"I think the conversation was really overstated after the game," Pereira concluded. "I didn't see it as a poorly officiated game."

It's hard to argue about officiating with the world's leading expert on NFL officiating. Still, I don't see a Roethlisberger touchdown or a real Jackson push-off, even after 10 years and a skull session with Pereira. By the time Hasselbeck was penalized for a low block, it felt to me like the referees were just emptying the rulebook looking for ways to mess with the Seahawks, like the crooked sheriff giving the out-of-state driver a ticket for poorly inflated tires and an unpolished seat belt.

I asked Pereira if the officials might have gotten swept up in the enthusiasm of the Steelers-supporting crowd.

"One day, let's sit down together, and you can write an article about the myths in football officiating," he replied. "The makeup call is a myth. The more popular team gets calls? Myth. Influence of the crowd? It's a myth. The impact that coaches have when they are getting on officials? It's a myth!"

Pereira pointed out that all NFL officials started out on youth and high school fields with parents screaming at them from a few feet away. They are also judged by the postgame grades their supervisors provide, the ones that decide if they ever get to officiate a Super Bowl again or end up fired, or working Bills-Browns games in December.

Pereira eventually relented a little bit on the "home crowd" theory: "The notion of getting influenced by the crowd, if you give that any kind of credibility at all, you give it 1 percent out of 100. The other 99 percent would be getting it right."

That 1 percent may have loomed large during Super Bowl XL. But for me, the real key to understanding why the calls from that game looked so bad lies in something else Pereira said: The makeup call is a myth.

We expect shaky calls to "go both ways." But NFL referees do not think that way. Hedging on one call to correct for a potential mistake in an earlier call will just expose them to the blind justice of the supervisor of officiating, who holds much more power over them than Mike Holmgren, Bill Cowher or even the commissioner.

Super Bowl XL saw Bill Cowher happy with the referees for once.
Super Bowl XL saw Bill Cowher happy with the referees for once.MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press/Associated Press

So Leavy and his staff flagged Jackson on a chapter-and-verse interpretation of pass interference. They saw a Roethlisberger touchdown and didn't see the conclusive evidence they needed to overturn it. They saw a Locklear hold but not an offside pass-rusher. We kept waiting for a makeup call that was never going to happen because there is no such thing.

And individual officials, with so many things to keep track of on each play, weren't noticing what the sum total of their many small decisions looked like to the viewers at home. "Even if you tried to put in a fix, things happen so fast that you don't have time to factor in things like favoring one guy or one team," Pereira said.

Over the years, the howling about Super Bowl XL has quieted. Memories fade. Wounds heal. The Seahawks trounced the ever-popular Peyton Manning to win Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Then they lost a second Super Bowl because of their own late-game foolishness, which no doubt shook some holdout conspiracy theorists back to their senses.

Simply put, too many weird things can happen in a football game to orchestrate a league-level fix.

Of course, that may be just what the puppet masters want us to believe.

The debacle surrounding the officiating in Super Bowl XL did spark one significant rule change. Pereira said that high-ranking NFL employees are no longer allowed to schedule vacations for the day after the Super Bowl. So if wonky officiating, soft footballs or any other scandal clouds any future Super Bowl, top execs won't easily flee to Central America.

But let's hope it never comes to that. No one outside of western Pennsylvania ever wants to see a game officiated quite as unsatisfactorily as Super Bowl XL again.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.