Flag Frenzy

The Super Bowlofficiating wasn't as bad as many claim, but the league realizes there's workto do to achieve consistency

Has everyone hadenough time to get over the officiating controversies in Super Bowl XL? Has thesteam stopped coming out of Seattle coach Mike Holmgren's ears? Have columnistsin the Pacific Northwest settled down yet (including the one who, two daysafter the Seahawks' 21-10 loss to the Steelers, datelined his story: gotscrewed, usa)? And how will these shaky calls on the NFL's biggest stage,coupled with the ensuing outcry, affect the future of the league's officiating?Looking back at the videotape and ahead to the ways the NFL might addresslingering dissatisfaction, here's what can be said with certainty.

Only one of thefive heavily disputed calls against Seattle was flat wrong. The flag for anillegal block by quarterback Matt Hasselbeck during an interception return byPittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor in the fourth quarter should not have beenthrown. The only person Hasselbeck hit below the waist on the runback wasTaylor--which is a legal tackle. It's hard to believe that the seven officialsdid not confer and change the call. Three of the other four plays depended tosome degree on the officials' judgment but were supported by NFL rules, and theremaining one was indisputably correct.

•On the apparentfirst-quarter touchdown reception by Seahawks wideout Darrell Jackson, whichwas negated by offensive pass interference, Jackson clearly gave Steelerssafety Chris Hope a slight shove while the ball was in the air. In 2004 gameofficials were told by the league to more strictly enforce the rules on illegalcontact and pass interference beyond the five-yard bump zone. It may have beena ticky-tacky call in the Super Bowl, but Jackson did impede Hope's progress.By the book, the call was correct.

•Replays ofSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's touchdown dive in the second quarterdid not provide conclusive evidence to overturn the TD call. As Roethlisbergerfell and was hit by linebacker D.D. Lewis, the quarterback's left arm coveredthe ball, obscuring the camera's view of where the ball was in relation to theplane of the goal line. After a slight hesitation, head linesman Mark Hittnersignaled touchdown. According to one NFL source, Hittner later told leagueofficials that he was "100 percent" sure of his call but had been slowin his mechanics.

•Jackson'sapparent catch near the goal line, which was ruled out-of-bounds in the secondquarter, is the play, according to longtime Seattle talk-show host Mitch Levy,that "has this town on its ear." Jackson got his left foot inbounds andhis right foot brushed the pylon, but the NFL says the pylon is not inbounds. Aplayer's foot can brush the pylon but must land inbounds or in the end zone forthe catch to be legal. On this play the right foot clearly landedout-of-bounds. Easy call.

•In the fourthquarter Hasselbeck hit tight end Jerramy Stevens at the Pittsburgh one-yardline, but the play was negated by a holding penalty on Seattle right tackleSean Locklear. According to NFL rules, "hands or arms that encircle adefender--i.e., hook an opponent--are to be considered illegal." Replaysappeared to show Locklear's right arm briefly hooking linebacker ClarkHaggans's neck. Haggans's progress was impeded, though probably not long enoughto rate as a standard "hooking" call. But here's how close it was: Inpreparation for HBO's Inside the NFL last week, analysts Dan Marino and CrisCollinsworth watched the Locklear play five or six times. Marino was convincedit was a hold; Collinsworth was convinced it wasn't.

TV analystsfueled the controversy. When respected commentators such as John Madden andSteve Young question a call, the public tends to follow their lead. Thathappened in this Super Bowl. In his halftime segment Young disagreed with thefirst-quarter call against Jackson, deeming the play "an absolutetouchdown." Madden, watching the replay of the Locklear call, declared itwas not holding based on that camera angle. "Once the guys on TV say it's abad call, right or wrong, it creates a snowball downhill againstofficiating," says Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, cochair of the NFLcompetition committee, which proposes rules to the owners.

There's no moveto make officiating a full-time job. While ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said lastweek that the NFL "is a multibillion-dollar industry being ruled bypart-time people," those inside the league don't believe that full-timeofficials would make better split-second decisions. "The problem is theofficials just wouldn't get enough work, enough repetitions," says Coltspresident Bill Polian, a member of the competition committee. Plus, such a movewould force some to choose between professions, and good officials, such aslawyer and veteran ref Ed Hochuli, could be lost.

The league willwork to make officiating more consistent from crew to crew. SI spoke with oneactive and one former official, on condition of anonymity, and both said amajor issue for crews is the inconsistency among league supervisors who gradethem each week. For instance, the active official said, the holding penalty onLocklear would be graded a correct call by some supervisors and wrong byothers. When the competition committee meets later this month, it will try toclarify the definition of holding, calling in an offensive line coach, adefensive line coach, an official and several players to help. "It'simportant that we get the precise terminology of what the foul is, so all thecrews can call it right," says Polian. "There can't be a grayarea."

At least Seattlefans will agree with that.

Come and Get'Em

Three Super BowlXL players, plus a kicker who won a big game or two for New England, are amongthe top 10 potential free agents who are expected to avoid the franchise tagand hit the market when the signing period begins on March 3. (Statistics arefor 2005.)

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

PLAYER, POSITION, TEAM HOTTEST PURSUERS
1. Kyle Vanden Bosch
DE, Titans
49ers, Bengals, Browns
Second in AFC with 12 1/2 sacks
2. Jon Kitna
QB, Bengals
Bengals, Lions, Ravens
League's best backup quarterback
3. Shaun Alexander
RB, Seahawks
Seahawks, Cardinals, Vikings
Reigning NFL MVP and rushing champ
4. Adam Vinatieri
K, Patriots (above)
Cowboys, Patriots, Redskins
Best clutch kicker of this era
5. Jon Runyan
T, Eagles
Cowboys, Texans, Browns
Excellent drive-blocker
6. Edgerrin James
RB, Colts
Colts, Panthers, Cardinals
Consistent 1,300-yard rusher
7. Aaron Kampman
DE, Packers
Packers, Texans, Browns
Steady against run and pass
8. Antwaan Randle El
WR, Steelers
Bears, Redskins, Patriots
League's most versatile wideout
9. Larry Tripplett
DT, Colts
Colts, Giants, Buccaneers
Warren Sapp redux for Tony Dungy in Indy
10. Rocky Bernard
DT, Seahawks
Seahawks, Buccaneers, Cardinals
Second among all tackles with 8 1/2 sacks
PHOTOBILL FRAKESLOW BLOW The puzzling penalty on Hasselbeck (8) was one of several calls that irked Holmgren (inset). PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (HOLMGREN)See caption above. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)