There are those in Seattle, and around the country, who will go to their graves believing that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL had an odor to it from the start.
From Ben Roethlisberger’s one-yard rushing touchdown that was inconclusive even on review, to the phantom holding call that took a potential 98-yard touchdown drive away from Seattle, the calls made by the officiating crew in that February, 2006 game created a tapestry of suspicion that persists to this day. Some believe that the refs were told to call the game tight on the Seahawks and loose on the Steelers, a concept which exacerbated the mistakes Seattle made in the game.
More than four years after the fact, another voice has been added to the choir calling that game a mess of bad decisions. Head official Bill Leavy, in Seattle to go through the annual rules changes production on behalf of the NFL, started his presentation by addressing what he called “The elephant in the living room.”
“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. It left me with a lot of sleepless nights and I think about it constantly. I’ll go to my grave wishing that I’d been better. I know that I did my best at that time, but it wasn’t good enough.
“When we make mistakes, you’ve got to step up and own them. It’s something that all officials have to deal with, but unfortunately when you have to deal with it in the Super Bowl, it’s difficult.”
The only problem with the idea of “stepping up and owning” the mistakes is that until Leavy’s admission, the league had tacitly refused to do so. Then-VP of Officiating Mike Pereira went on the NFL Network’s Total Access show two weeks after the game (as opposed to the usual one-week lag) and glossed over what was then a national outrage over the officiating in that game. Steelers fans aside, everyone wanted to know — what the heck happened?
Pereira explained one of the two calls Leavy was talking about — the fourth-quarter holding call on right tackle Sean Locklear that pushed the ball from the Pittsburgh 1-yard line to the Pittsburgh 29.
“Looking at the position of [Locklear’s] feet, and saying that you’ve got to keep hands inside the frame from this position, with the right end around the shoulder, pulling on the arm, and eventually the defender going down to a knee…you’ve got the ingredients of a hold there,” he said “That’s an example of a type of play that you’ll get from time to time. It’s got the ingredients of a hold — not the strongest, but in fact, it’s got what it takes to be considered a hold. And Bill Leavy, from his position, got that look that you just saw.”
It’s also important to note that the NFL refined the holding rules at the owners meetings soon after. “One of the things we emphasized in there was seeing the entire foul,” committee co-chair Rich McKay said. “If you do not see the entire foul, you cannot call holding. That’s specifically applied when players go to the ground. Because what often happens is you see a player, a defensive player on the ground, the offensive player is on the ground and you see a flag, foul it. If you don’t see the entire action, you cannot assume that it was holding that caused that player to go to the ground.”
The other call Leavy’s talking about, a low block call on Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, is one that Pereira almost admitted to being wrong at the time.
Two things stand out about Leavy’s admission — first, why did it take so long for him to admit that his calls were wrong? The NFL drilled it into everyone’s heads that all the “important” calls in that game were close, but correct. With so many of the main characters off to other things, what’s the good in admitting it now? Replay technology hasn’t changed; the league has the same angles on that game now that it did then. Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren is now running the Cleveland Browns, and team president Tim Ruskell is now working for the Chicago Bears. Pereira has retired from his league position to become the media personification of officiating expertise for several media outlets. Leavy is still an official. Hasselbeck and Locklear are two of a handful of Seahawks players who are still with the team.
Second, just because Leavy admitted to blowing two calls doesn’t mean that those were the only errors in the game. Leavy wasn’t the one who called the Roethlisberger touchdown; that was head linesman Mark Hittner. Nor was Leavy in charge of the first-quarter offensive pass interference call on Seahawks receiver Darrell Jackson. Do the Seahawks have to wait another five years for the admissions on those calls?
Put simply, the Seahawks didn’t play well enough to win Super Bowl XL. They made several crucial mistakes, but it’s also correct to say that the Steelers didn’t play well enough to win. Officiated correctly, XL probably would have been an ugly war of attrition; a barely-remembered close game that could have gone either way. But because of the calls made, the league’s subsequent denial that anything was wrong with those calls, and Leavy’s admission of guilt so much later, this game will never go away.