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Monday, February 06, 2006

Super Bowl 28....er, 40....er, 101000....er, 50

How 'bout them Stillers!

I am happy that the Steelers won the game, but I also note that this is not just the strangest Super Bowl I've ever seen, but also one of the strangest football games of any type I've ever seen. Here we had a game where the winning quarterback posted a passer rating of 22.6; here we had a game where the team that won the turnover battle lost the game; here we had a game where it seemed like every great play was followed minutes later by a stunningly bad play. What a strange, whacky game.

So, today on the radio, it stands to reason that the major topic of discussion is...the officiating. I mean, that's got to be the major reason the Steelers won the game, right? The refs were clearly judging the Seahawks more harshly than the Steelers. Clearly the Seahawks were screwed each time out, when every questionable call or seemingly unjustifiable tossing of the yellow flag went against them. The refs saw to it that every time the momentum started to swing toward the Seahawks, it got swung right round again, pronto.

I'm sympathetic to a point. I didn't see the personal foul called on Matt Hasselbeck, so I can't comment on that, but the offensive pass interference call that negated a touchdown was a tough one, even if I'm generally fine with it because I suspect that if that exact play gets run a hundred times, the NFL's refs will throw that flag probably fifty percent of the time. There really are times when officiating is a crapshoot.

Same with Ben Roethlisberger's touchdown run. To me, it looked pretty evident that he got in: judging by where he was holding his arm as he reached the front edge of the goal line, the ball had to have broken the plane. However, I also suspect that if the line judge had made the opposite call -- down at the one-inch line -- the instant replay would not have offered the conclusive proof to overturn that call, either; and in any case, I seriously doubt the Seahawks would have been able to turn back the inevitable attempt by the Steelers to pound the ball in there on fourth-and-goal from the one-inch line. So I'm not bothered by that one, either.

The Seahawks suffered seven penalties for 70 yards, versus only three penalties for 20 yards for the Steelers. That seems kind of lopsided, but for a bit of perspective, here are the penalty results from the last few Super Bowls:

SB 40: Steelers 3 (20 yds), Seahawks 7 (70 yds)
SB 39: StuPats 7 (47 yds), Eagles 3 (35 yds)
SB 38: StuPats 8 (60 yds), Panthers 12 (73 yds)
SB 37: Bucs 5 (41 yds), Raiders 7 (51 yds)
SB 36: StuPats 5 (31 yds), StL 6 (39 yds)
SB 35: Ravens 9 (70 yds), Giants 6 (27 yds)
SB 34: Rams 8 (60 yds), Titans 7 (45 yds)

Of the previous six Super Bowls, the winning team was penalized more than the losing team. The average number of penalties for winning and losing teams, including yesterday's game, since SB 34 break down thusly:

Winners 6.4 (42.6 yds), Losers 6.9 (48.6)

So the Steelers did get penalized about half as much as winners have typically done recently, but the Seahawks weren't really that far off the pace for losing teams. Does this mean anything? I'm not sure that it does, but it may point to the one reason I think that the Steelers really won the game: composure.

Watching this game was a study in contrasting attitudes on the part of the teams. No one will disagree that Seattle looked fairly sharp in the first quarter, while Pittsburgh could only have looked flatter if they'd actually started turning the ball over from the get-go. However, the Steelers hung in there, eventually getting things moving, albeit never terribly impressively except for a trio of really big plays. But what really stood out, for me, was that each time something bad happened to the Steelers, their team demeanor did not change. Seattle's, however, did. After every call against them, after every dropped pass and missed field goal and eventually after a crucial interception, the Seahawks looked a little more deflated every time something went wrong. They started out with their heads in the game, and the Steelers did not. But the Steelers got their heads in the game and took maximum advantage of the relatively small number of opportunities they had, while the Seahawks allowed themselves to get disrupted.

Setting aside the penalties and the possible wrong calls, the Seahawks were only down by eleven points in the fourth quarter with eight minutes to go, and yet Shaun Alexander, the NFL MVP who rushed for over 1800 yards this year, only touched the ball one more time after that. In fact, after the Seahawks had scored to close to being only down 14-10 in the third quarter, Shaun Alexander only touched the ball six more times. In the whole game, Alexander only had twenty carries -- and while his team trailed the entire second half, the difference was never enough to justify abandoning the run.

Then there were the missed field goals. Yes, kicks from 54 and 50 yards are low-percentage kicks, but both of Josh Brown's kicks had the distance; he was over 60 percent successful from that range during the regular season; and it's not like he had weather to contend with -- he was kicking indoors. If he makes either of those kicks, or even both of them, then that means that assuming everything else remains the same the Seahawks would have been in an entirely different situation on that last drive. There would have been less panicked urgency, because it would not have been a two-possession game. But the kicks both missed wide.

And that's not even mentioning the clock-management problems the Seahawks had.

Contrast that with the Steelers, who kept their wits about them. The Steelers didn't panic when they made bad plays (and a couple of 'em were downright awful plays). They stayed calm and waited for the next opportunity for a big play, which they made each time. They still controlled the tempo of the game. They didn't play well, but they didn't need to. They just found ways to make the big plays they needed to make, and Seattle didn't: as the need to make plays got bigger and bigger for the Seahawks, they strayed farther and farther away from getting the ball to their playmaker.

And that is why the Steelers won this game.

Some random final thoughts:

:: Here's a scary thought: Ben Roethlisberger is probably still a year or two away from being in his prime.

:: I take this game, and this entire season, as proof of my theory about Bill Cowher: rather than being a guy who could never get over the hump until now, the guy is a brilliant coach who got closer to that hump than he ever should have with the talent he had.

:: I really hope the Seahawks get back to the Super Bowl and win it soon. I like Mike Holmgren a lot (I've liked him since his Packers days), and while I wasn't rooting for them, I don't dislike them at all. As long as they don't play the Steelers or Bills next time they're in the Super Bowl, I'll root for them.

:: Is the idea of a Super Bowl without Tom Brady present somehow unthinkable now? Having him at the coin toss was just goofy.

:: Why does a fresh ball have to be used for every first-half play? What is the point of that?

:: What on Earth was up with all the newfound reverence for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, with the thing being walked out onto the field for the presentation? As trophies go, I think that the Lombardi is the coolest one aside from the Stanley Cup (which is cool mainly because it's so friggin' huge, and because the players actually get to take it home for a while after they win it), but the Ritual Presentation of the Trophy was kind of strange, I thought.

(By the way, check out the Wikipedia entry on the Stanley Cup. There's a ton of cool Cup lore there, including the factoid that a player once tried drop-kicking the cup -- in a smaller incarnation -- across a canal. He was unsuccessful.)

:: Was it just me, or after the game was over, did Steelers owner Dan Rooney look like he'd just won a free Coke from McDonald's? The guy could not possibly have looked less enthusiastic.

:: I know that ABC wanted to get to Grey's Anatomy (a show which, in my opinion, is now what ER used to be and isn't close to being anymore), but does the losing team no longer warrant any coverage at all? No interviews with Mike Holmgren or anything.

:: I didn't bother watching many commercials. I did like the "streaking sheep" one, the Kermit-the-Frog in the Great Outdoors one, and I thought the funniest was the Sharpie Retractible commercial that depicted the trials and tribulations of a theme-park pirate. The Fed Ex dinosaur ad drew a "meh" from me, the Diet Pepsi ads sucked, and if I live to the age of 200 and never see the Whopperettes again, I may get over the mental scarring. That was one weird, creepy-assed ad.

:: OK, the Harrison Ford-channeling-Dr. Seuss thing amused me. What can I say? Harrison Ford can, it seems, still summon up quite a lot of coolness.

:: Thank God for the Winter Olympics...for me, the post-Super Bowl, pre-Spring Training period is the dullest sports time of the year. (I don't care one whit about college basketball.)

Well, I wonder who the Bills will sign in free agency? And who they'll draft? Can we start training camp now?

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