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The 2006 Playoffs go down as the “Postseason of the Blown Call”

 

By Adam Hoff

 

Growing up, I was taught never to blame the outcome of a game on the officials.  My Dad used to say that “there are a lot of plays in a game” and that the “players decide who wins the games.”  He correctly pointed out that officials make for an easy target, a scapegoat for teams to point to when things don’t go their way. 

 

Therefore, it says a lot that even my Dad admits that the NFL officials blew Super Bowl XL. 

 

The “Insider” column immediately preceding this piece was written by WhatifSports legend Elliot Schwartz, and in it, he points the blame finger at the Seattle Seahawks for poor clock management, suspect play calling, and crucial mistakes.  I can’t exactly disagree with him on those points.  However, he also called the ‘Hawks out for committing several costly penalties and that is where our paths split.  In my opinion, the series of huge penalties called on the Seahawks were not mistakes made by Seattle, but rather mistakes made by the officials.  Which works well, because it allows us to have our own little PTI right here on the best website in the world (hey, the Webby’s determined that, not me). 

 

The officiating in Super Bowl XL has been the lead story for the past 48 hours in the world of sports, which should tell you something.  Nothing remains a hot story for 48 hours anymore without getting twisted and contorted into something entirely different after the one hundredth version.  We saw it with the Peyton Manning debacle and the 81-point game by Kobe.  We see it all the time.  So the simple fact that the “officials blow game” angle persists beyond the 48-hour threshold has enormous significance.  It is an industry-wide admission that, yes, regardless of who you were rooting for, the guys in stripes gagged.

 

Sure, a few spin-off stories have emerged.  Mike Holmgren is being criticized for deflecting responsibility by complaining at a pep rally.  Some pundits are playing the “get over it” card.  The NFL has responded with a defensive statement.  But very few people are shifting gears here.  Why is that?

 

Obviously, a big part of the reason is that there were more than a few suspect calls in the biggest American sporting event.  That will always raise eyebrows.  Even worse, nearly every call went against one team.  That creates a legitimate firestorm.  Then, when you throw on the fact that the Super Bowl XL misfire was merely the icing on the cake for a postseason full of horrible officiating, well, now you have a serious problem.

 

I believe that is part of what is fueling the angry talking heads on television and the irritated writers on the internet.  They are just so tired of watching games become tainted by shady calls that they are pouring all of that frustration into the Super Bowl debacle. 

 

You know what?  They have a case.  If you look back over the 2006 playoffs, it reads like one big trainwreck of bad calls, misinterpreted rules, blown challenges, and general mayhem.  Even before the Super Bowl, the divisional round games saw two of the biggest crimes ever perpetrated by the men in stripes:

 

  • The Troy Polamalu interception that was ruled a fumble against all possible logic.  A call so bad that Joey Porter accused the league of rigging the game and didn’t even receive a fine. 

 

  • The horrendous pass interference call on Asante Samuels in the New England-Denver game that wound up costing the Patriots the game. 

 

Those were just the game-changing blatant misses.  That doesn’t even take into account all of the disputed calls from the early rounds of the playoffs, of which there were many.  Then there was the Super Bowl.

 

Before throwing the officials under a speeding train here, let me again note that yes, the Seahawks made mistakes.  The clock management at the end of both halves was horrible, Jerramy Stevens was a disaster, and Tom Rouen might have set the record for “most times blowing field position by punting the ball directly into the end zone.”  However, this is one of those rare cases where a team’s chances of winning were dramatically reduced by the officials, possibly even eliminated. 

 

First, there was the offensive pass interference call.  Brutal penalty.  Not only does this kind of contact happen between receiver and defensive back on virtually every NFL play and not only does Hines Ward push off (with both hands) on pretty much every route he runs, but the call came late, only after Chris Hope turned around and begged for it.  Are you kidding me?  Since when are we listening to player requests?  That is what made the call so bad.  It looked like the back judge let the play go (as he would on 99% of occasions) only to be met with an incredulous Chris Hope, which seemed to shock the ref into throwing a flag.  It was almost like Hope said, “What are you doing?” and the ref said, “Oh yeah, sorry.”  The whole thing looked really bad.  I know that the game wasn’t fixed or anything like that, but referees are humans too and they can become absorbed in a storyline just like anyone else.  It honestly looked like he saw a Pittsburgh player complain and threw a flag to “fix” the situation.  For that reason, this was one of the worst calls in a long, long time.  Throw in the fact that it took seven points off the board for Seattle and it was even worse.  (There is a point to be made that the call was delayed for different reasons, but that doesn’t chance the fact that it looked really bad for the NFL.)

 

The other sequence that was just horrendous was the series of calls that went against Seattle with the score 14-10 and the underdogs marching toward a touchdown.  It was at this point that the zoo crew missed an absolutely unfathomable four straight calls.  Let’s go through them:

 

  1. The phantom holding call.  You all know this one.  It was the play in which Sean Locklear appeared to block Clark Haggans in a perfectly legal fashion, only for the yellow flag to come flying down.  I have yet to hear one former NFL player claim that this was holding.  Locklear didn’t grab his jersey, he didn’t tackle Haggans, he didn’t do anything except block him.  Even worse was the fact that it negated one of the few passes that Stevens did catch and took away a first-and-goal from the one.  In effect, it took seven more points off the board for Seattle.  (Worse still is the fact that Haggans was offsides by a mile on the play.)

 

  1. Speaking of offsides.  Obviously, the holding call was a killer, but overlooked in the sequence was the fact that Haggans was offsides again on the next play, which allowed him to break down the offensive line and cause a crucial sack of Matt Hasselbeck, all of which put the Seahawks in a second-and-25 situation. 

 

  1. The “horse collar” no call.  This play almost made my head explode.  Everyone recalls the play last year when Roy Williams busted T.O.’s leg by dragging him down to the ground from behind, courtesy of what became known as a “horse collar” tackle.  In the offseason, a new rule was implemented to eliminate this form of tackling from the game.  It was a highly publicized rule change and something that was called often during the season (and always followed by an elaborate explanation of the Williams-Owens play and the subsequent rule changes).  Then, when Joey Porter drags Shaun Alexander down with a horse collar tackle, nothing happens.  In the Super Bowl!  Al Michaels briefly mentioned that it “looked like there might have been a horse collar there, but no call,” but that was it.  It was blatant, it was right in front of the ref … how is there no call there?  As Bill Walton would say, “Why even have a rulebook?”  I’m so confused by this.  Stymied, one might say.  (The worse thing about this whole incident is that it wasn’t like a horse collar flag would have been a cheap penalty for Seattle.  It was a terrific all by Seattle and caught the Steelers defense by surprise.  Alexander had already gained seven yards and was turning the corner with only one cornerback in front of him.  The only hope of stopping him was by using an illegal tackle.  Unbelievable.)

 

  1. The mystifying “illegal block” call.  All of this led, of course, to the bad interception and completely surreal call against Hasselbeck, which proved that either the referees had no idea what the rules were, they weren’t paying any attention to the action on the field whatsoever, that they sucked at their jobs, or that the game was fixed.  I firmly believe that the latter isn’t true, so that leaves a combination of the first three, which is completely inexcusable. 

 Again, it is important to remember that the previous sequence happened on four consecutive plays and that every call went against the same team.  I challenge you to go back through the history of the NFL and find a series of plays like that.  I won’t drag up the holding call on Warrick’s punt return (because Cedric Pruitt – who killed Seattle all game – might have held on the play, it was hard to tell) or the Big Ben touchdown (because that call was merely “disputed” not “egregiously wrong” like all the others), but even without those crushing calls, Seattle was screwed out of at least 11 points.  For those that are very good at math, you’ll note that was the margin of victory for Pittsburgh.  I’m not saying that Seattle would have won the game, but it would have been a lot more exciting to watch.

 

All told, it was the most poorly officiated Super Bowl in history.  (Even though I haven’t been alive for all of them, I checked with people who have and they confirmed this to be the case.)  Worse for the league, it was just the latest and greatest debacle in a playoff filled with disputes and blown calls. 

 

The 2006 NFL Playoffs: The Postseason of the Blown Call.  Hey, at least it has a nice ring to it. 

  

Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com.

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