A strange thing happened on my way to Super Bowl XL at Ford Field.
Expecting to be royally entertained by the biggest spectacle in America's most popular sport, an NBA game unexpectedly broke out.
You know, sloppy play, long stretches of inactivity, a general lack of excitement, and, most of all, inconsistent and controversial officiating.
No, that wasn't NBA commissioner David Stern instead of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue congratulating the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the comparisons between the sports are difficult to ignore.
Pittsburgh and popular Detroit native Jerome Bettis defeated the Seattle Seahawks 21-10. The Steelers were the best team on Sunday; they deserved to win. But the Seahawks deserved a better fate and a fighting chance.
The officiating, as was the case throughout the NFL playoffs, was only as good as the product on the field.
Mediocre, at best.
One-sided officiating isn't why Seattle lost, but it's a story line that millions of people who watched Super Bowl XL believe, and they're sticking to it.
Were the refs subconsciously trying to atone for the poorly officiated AFC playoff game between the Steelers and Indianapolis Colts three weeks earlier when Troy Polamalu's interception was ruled an incomplete pass and linebacker Joey Porter accused the NFL of wanting the Colts to win?
Were they too quick to penalize the Seahawks and look the other away regarding the Steelers, who were the unofficial home team considering their fans outnumbered Seattle's fans at Ford Field by a ridiculously wide margin?
We can only speculate.
In this case, perception becomes reality.
Conspiracy theorists, unite.
"We knew it was going to be tough going against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn't know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well," coach Mike Holmgren told Seahawks fans Monday at Seattle's Qwest Field.
Holmgren is perfectly justified if he wants to vent about the officiating. But that's only if he's also willing to address his horrible clock management at the end of the first half, and again late in the fourth quarter, along with his defense's failure to stop Pittsburgh on third-and-28 in the second quarter, or its being out of position on wide receiver Antwaan Randle El's 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward in the fourth quarter.
Bad officiating or not, Seattle still lost the game on the field.
The Seahawks were not at their best in their biggest game, and the officiating crew only made things worse.
The refs whistled the
Seahawks for some mysterious penalities.
A dubious offensive pass interference call wiped out a Darrell Jackson touchdown catch in the first quarter.
Somehow the refs called quarterback Matt Hasselbeck for BLOCKING BELOW THE WAIST while Hasselbeck was making a TACKLE after tossing a fourth-quarter interception, which had to be an NFL first.
The calls were awful.
The refs also waved off big catches by Jackson and tight end Jerramy Stevens, along with a long punt return by Peter Warrick because of holding.
Maybe the penalties took Seattle out of its offensive rhythm.
Whatever the case, Seattle, which was tied for second for the fewest penalties in the NFL this season, was hit with seven penalities for 70 yards - tying the Seahawks for the third-most penalities in any Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh seemed to catch all the breaks. The Steelers were penalized three times for 20 yards - two false starts on their first possession and no penalties in the second half.
The disparity in penalties made it easier to speculate that the refs blew it again when they upheld Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's questionable one-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, and then later overlooked Porter's illegal "horse collar" tackle on Shaun Alexander in the fourth quarter, two plays after a holding penalty wiped out Stevens' catch at the Pittsburgh 1.
Now's the time for Tagliabue to seriously consider hiring full-time officials.
Make it a 12-month job, instead of a weekend hobby for insurance agents.
After Super Bowl XL, the NFL's credibility is at risk.
If fans can't trust the product the NFL puts on the field, Tagliabue is going to have bigger problems than he does right now trying to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the players union.
Just ask Stern how difficult it has been for the NBA to win back lost fans.
Super Bowl XL was easily the worst case of one-sided officiating in a major sporting event since Game 6 of the NBA's 2002 Western Conference finals between the favored and wildly popular Los Angeles Lakers and the small-market Sacramento Kings.
Two days after star Shaquille O'Neal fouled out in Game 5, the Lakers shot an incredible 27 free throws in the fourth quarter to win a close game at home. The Lakers won the series in seven games, and went on to win the NBA title.
Of course, the Seattle Seahawks, like the Sacramento Kings, still had the opportunity to overcome adversity and win. But just like Sacramento's collapse in Game 7, the Seahawks will be haunted by their failure to rise above it all.
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