2006-02-10 / Sports

Referees Possibly Rip Off Seattle From “Super” Win

By Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

By Michael Avallone
Sports Columnist

It’s not supposed to be this way. People sit in front of their television sets or pay good money for seats to watch the players on the field decide the outcome of a game. Far too often this postseason, the NFL referees have been a focal point of discussion following a game.

Three weeks ago, after Pittsburgh held on to upset Indianapolis, Steelers Joey Porter was unhappy about the overturning of Troy Polamalu’s fourth-quarter interception that would have made the game a relatively easy Pittsburgh win. Believing that the league favored Peyton Manning and the Colts to win, Porter publicly criticized the game officials, asking them not to “take the game from us.”

Think the outspoken Porter is singing the same tune now? The officials who performed well enough throughout the season to earn the opportunity of working Super Bowl XL performed Sunday as though they were trying to make it up to the Steelers by giving them the game — not just any game, but the biggest game. And, yes, this time the other guys, the Seahawks, cried conspiracy, only not quite as loudly as Porter.

Seattle cannot solely blame the officials, and they didn’t. Whether it was their inept offense inside the red zone, allowing Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker to break free for the longest run (75 yards) in Super Bowl history, or letting a trick play fool them, there are plenty of reasons the Seahawks ended the season with a loss. However, if you read between the lines, they all but admitted that they had plenty of help in handing Pittsburgh its fifth Super Bowl championship.

“Those things are out of our control,” Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said of the three major penalties. “That’s the way [the officials] called them. The Steelers played well enough to win tonight, and we didn’t. They should get credit. It’s disappointing, it’s hard, but what are you going to do?”

The Seahawks could have played better, no doubt. They could have done more to overcome the poor officiating. Athletes and fans understand that those things happen over the course of a game, but even with all the points Seattle left on the field, there’s a good chance the Seahawks would have scored more than the Steelers if the officials had let the players play.

In the biggest game of the year – the biggest game in sports – the officials were, once again, just a little too visible. In that regard, the Super Bowl provided a fitting conclusion to a postseason packed with pathetic performances by the game’s third team.

There were incorrect down-by-contact rulings in both NFC wild-card games; a touchdown that could have gone either way and should have gone the other way – in favor of Tampa Bay – in the Bucs’ loss to the Redskins; the Patriots had a right to gripe in Denver after being hit with a phantom pass interference penalty and not catching a break on Champ Bailey’s fumble at the goal line that looked as though it could have been a touchback; and, of course, the Polamalu play. Still, what happened to the Seahawks wasn’t the same as, say, New England going into Denver and playing badly (five turnovers) on top of the bad calls. Seattle gained almost 400 yards and turned it over just once.

It actually was a fairly clean game from a penalty standpoint, with only 10 accepted penalties between the teams. Seven were against the Seahawks, though, a team that tied with the Colts for the second-fewest penalties (94) in the regular season. But those calls against the Seahawks were devastating.

Seattle lost 161 yards to penalties when you combine the penalty yards (70) and the plays the flags wiped out (91). By halftime alone – when they trailed 7-3 – Seattle had had 73 hard-earned yards and a touchdown eliminated.

Hasselbeck hit Darrell Jackson with an apparent 16-yard scoring pass in the first quarter, but Jackson was called for offensive pass interference. It was a touch foul, at best. Jackson did extend his arm, but both players were fighting for position, and he didn’t create any separation of note in doing so.

The Seahawks had to settle for three instead of seven.

Still, that was early, and that one didn’t change the game as much as did a holding call against Sean Locklear early in the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh leading 14-10. That one wiped out an 18-yard catch by Stevens that would have taken the ball to the Steelers one-yard line. Locklear supposedly held Clark Haggans, so instead of first-and-goal at and the chance to complete a 98-yard touchdown drive and take a three-point lead, Seattle faced first-and-20 at the 29.

Three plays later, Ike Taylor picked off a Hasselbeck pass, and Hasselbeck went low to make the tackle on Taylor’s return and was called for a 15-yard personal foul for a low block. The Steelers set up shop at their 44 instead of the 29. The ruling was that Hasselbeck had gone low to take out a blocker – and illegal move – when in fact he made the attempt on the ballhandler – a legal tackle.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher then reached into his bag of tricks. Four plays later, from Seattle’s 43, former Indiana University quarterback Antwaan Randle El took a reverse and threw a perfect strike on the run to Hines Ward. So in a matter of minutes, the Seahawks went from a possible 17-14 lead to a 21-10 deficit.

Game over.

Then there was the “touchdown” scored by Ben Roethlisberger. Leavy reviewed the play under the booth’s orders, since it occurred inside the two-minute mark, and while still photos of an airborne Roethlisberger showed that the ball might have broken the plane of the goal line, he landed short of it and reached the ball over. It was close. Head linesman Mark Hittner didn’t seem so sure of it, hesitating before signaling touchdown.

“I don’t think he scored,” Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. For the record, Roethlisberger concurred, stating as much on The David Letterman Show Monday night. Pittsburgh capitalized on its opportunities. And guys like Bill Cowher, Ward, Dan Rooney and The Bus are all very deserving of a championship – and it’s nice to see them win one – but it would have been better had it not happened like this. It’s like the Seahawks said: Not taking anything away from the Steelers, but…

“We had a touchdown taken away from us, the first one we scored,” said Hasselbeck, “and then we had the ball at the 1-yard line, they called a penalty on us. That was unfortunate.”

With the long offseason now upon us, the rest of the league will go about strengthening their respective teams to knock off the Steelers in 2006. After the postseason they just had, the NFL’s crew of officials would be wise to take a long, hard look at themselves.

They call the refs “zebras.” Right family, wrong specie.

A four-legged animal that goes by a three-letter word that rhymes with “glass” is more like it.

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