Perhaps one of the hardest things to understand is how paralyzing the pressure of the big game can be. It's a perspective that the "television" crowd loses all too often. Sometimes, when the game gets too big, a communal panic sets in. Normal cerebral functions are interrupted. With the eyes of the world upon them, the anxiety of the moment can gorgonize even the most veteran of play-callers. Decisions are endorsed that wouldn't even merit consideration under normal circumstances. And the fans watching on TV can only shake their heads and ask themselves, "what in the world were they thinking?"
That, at least, is the only way I can explain the impossibly fetid "Hummer" commercial that played in the third quarter.
I'm not really sure when this started. Maybe as many as X Super Bowls ago, the Super Bowl commercial became a kind of cultural sub-phenomenon within a phenomenon. With the biggest audience of the year on hand - and commercial prices rising to preposterous amounts - it became imperative that advertisers hold that audience during the commercials. So for a few years there, they provided America with some of history's most inventive and entertaining commercials.
Now, the pressure has clearly gotten to them. The expectations are impossible to meet. The last several Super Bowl commercial sets have been merely disappointing. This year's Hummer commercial (the unforgettably disgusting one that presented the automobile as the womb-fruit of a monster and a giant robot) may have been the death-knell of the genre. I seriously considered that the commercial might have been produced by Hummer's competition. But the next day when the Hummer people didn't issue a public disclaimer, it became apparent that someone in that company actually believed that this appalling bit of video would encourage someone to purchase a Hummer. Mind boggling.
As for the football game, well, it was a little mind boggling, too.
Can't Anybody Play This Game?
At the beginning of the second quarter, an ABC graphic informed us that the Pittsburgh Steelers were only the third team in Super Bowl history to end the first quarter without a first down. The other two teams to so fail were the New England Patriots of Super Bowl XX - who were completely demolished by Da' Bears of Chicago - and the Baltimore Colts way back in Super Bowl V - who, like the Steelers, managed to win the game anyway.
I thought it particularly appropriate that this game should be somehow linked to Super Bowl V, as this one bore some striking resemblances to that game. Those of you who are not at least XXXV Super Bowls old will not remember Super Bowl V. It was the very first "close" Super Bowl (Jim O'Brien won it for the Colts with a last-second field goal). But like the most recent one, it was not at all a thing of beauty. It featured seven turnovers - and that was just by the winning team. Dallas added four more of its own for a two-team total of 11 turnovers (a Super Bowl record that has since been equaled but never surpassed). Super Bowl XL didn't approach that number of turnovers (only three by the two teams combined), but like that earlier Super Bowl it did feature some surprisingly ineffective play from the quarterbacks. And both Super Bowls turned on some very questionable officiating.
What Happened to Ben?
The Steeler's surprising playoff run had been fueled by the passing of second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But Sunday, under the glare of his first Super Bowl, the cucumber-cool wunderkind of the conquests of Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver showed himself all-too human. His final passing line (9-21, 123 yards, 0 TD, 2 int) resulted in a passer rating of just 22.62 - the lowest ever "achieved" by the winning QB in a Super Bowl.
Even those numbers don't do justice to Big Ben's struggles. Consider that Ben was 3-3 on screen passes and 3-4 throwing to the flats or underneath the coverages. That means that from about ten yards out and deeper, Roethlisberger completed only 3 of 14 passes (21.4%) for 72 yards and an interception. His passer rating on these throws was a disturbing 18.75.
What happened? Nerves? Possibly. Although I get the feeling there may have been more to it than that.
He was clearly antsy in the pocket, although there was no need for discomfort. Pass protection was one of the few things that the Steelers did particularly well that evening. The Seahawks almost never blitzed (only 3 times the whole game) and Steeler tackles Marvel Smith and Max Starks made Seattle's pass-rushing ends (ex-Rams Grant Wistrom and Bryce Fisher) virtually disappear. Wistrom did manage one sack, but that was the only time either was heard from. This is a notable achievement, considering that Smith and Starks single blocked these guys all night without ever needing help from a back or tight end. Given this kind of time, Ben should have lit this defense up like a Christmas tree.
But it never happened. A couple of his misses were bad throws. Another was dropped. And the rest? Well, there were these defenders standing everywhere Ben was trying to throw the ball. Because Ben looked bad in the pocket, it's become popular to say that it was on him - he had a bad game. I'm sure he's had better, but perhaps not enough credit is given to the pass defenders in Seattle.
Just two weeks ago, these Seahawks were dealing with Carolina and Jake Delhomme. Jake - if you'll remember - came into that game as one of the more highly regarded playoff QBs around. Up until they put that game out of reach, Seattle held January Jake to a 1.62 QB rating (on just 5-18 passing). Jake did hit a couple of long passes in that game, but it's interesting to note that in the same intermediate range (10-to-20 yards out) where Roethlisberger struggled, Jake went just 1-11 for 10 yards and all three of his interceptions.
When Big Ben's struggles are matched along side of January Jake's difficulties, it begins to occur to me that maybe it's not just bad days by the quarterbacks. Assessing what happens in the defensive secondary remains the hardest part of watching games on TV. The coverages are virtually hidden. Could Ben have had receivers open all night that he didn't see? Quite possibly. It's also possible, though, that Seattle's fast young linebackers are more adroit at filling these intermediate passing lanes than they are sometimes given credit for. Big game jitters might be one reason why Ben was frenetic in the pocket (Ron Jaworski's term). Tight coverage can cause that, too.
Back to their Roots
Whether because of the struggles of the passing game, or whether it was the plan all along, the Steeler game plan evolved into a model of conservative play-calling. In their 31 offensive snaps where they held any kind of a lead, they ran the ball 21 times (68%). They ran on 16 of 24 first down plays (67%). They ran on 5 of their 6 snaps in the Red Zone (the only pass they attempted in the Red Zone resulted in Kelly Herndon's record-setting interception).
Since running the ball is what the Steelers do, this should have surprised no one. And, looking just at the statistics, you would think this an excellent call on the part of the Steeler brain-trust. In 33 rushes, the Steelers finished with a dominating 181 yards and a 5.5 yard average. These were the most deceptive numbers of the Super Bowl. It's hard to look at these numbers and say that the Steeler running game struggled, but that is, in fact, what happened.
Of those 181 rush yards, 75 came on Fast Willie Parker's touchdown streak on the second snap of the second half. In the first half, a gadget-play end-around to Hines Ward accounted for another 18 of those rush yards. The other 31 runs by Pittsburgh added up to only 88 yards (2.8 yards per). Of their 33 runs, only 12 gained at least four yards (and 3 of those were scrambles by the QB). Since they ran two-thirds of the time on first down, this left them in consistent second and long counts. Only 7 of their 24 first down plays gained at least the four yards that would keep them out of the known passing situation.
Everyone who watched the game seemed to chose a different MVP. Hines Ward made a few big plays and won the hardware. Devasker, in an earlier thread, nominated Casey Hampton -- and with good reason. Hampton dominated the middle of the line all day. I'll name mine a little later. Greg Easterbrook, writing in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback (TMQ) column picked Pittsburgh LG Alan Faneca - principally for throwing the key block on Parker's 75-yard touchdown run. Greg is a delightful writer and a fun columnist to read. Even after all these years, though, his football scholarship leaves a little something to be desired.
That block was about the only moment that Faneca had in the game. For most of the evening, the interior of that Pittburgh offensive line (Faneca, Jeff Hartings and Kendall Simmons) was pushed around by the middle of Seattle's defensive line. Chartric Darby, for one, outplayed Faneca most of the game and proved particularly disruptive to the Steeler running attack. In fact, if it's true that Faneca opened the way for one touchdown, it's also true that he almost cost them another. Pittsburgh's first touchdown was the much disputed 1-yard dive by Roethlisberger. A good call on the goal line, the play was only close because Ben was forced to launch himself from about the three-yard line. And he had to launch himself from the three-yard line because that's where Alan Faneca lay in a crumpled heap at his feet.
Pittsburgh's offense in Super Bowl XL was basically three big plays: Ben Roethlisberger's near scramble that resulted in a 37-yard heave to Hines Ward that set-up the first touchdown; Willie Parker's 75-yard dash in the third quarter; and the 43-yard touchdown pass that Randle-El threw off the end around.
Except for these big plays that either scored or set-up the Pittsburgh touchdowns, the Steeler offense - both running and passing - was decisively throttled by Seattle's defense. Minus the three big plays, the Steelers only managed 184 total yards on their other 53 plays, an average of just 3.5 yards per play.
Of the Seattle defenders, they play of young linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill was particularly noteworthy. Both of these kids combine great speed with terrific instincts. Not only did their tight coverages contribute to a poor Pittsburgh passing game, but they wrecked havoc on the Steeler ground attack as well. Even those times when the Steeler linemen could get off of the line of scrimmage, they seemed incapable of laying a glove on these linebackers. Of Pittsburgh's 33 running plays, Tatupu or Hill made the primary tackle on 15 of them. And these were not tackles made fifteen yards down the field, either. The Steelers gained just 47 yards on those 15 runs.
Over the course of the playoffs, the Steeler offense has proved itself to be very explosive. In holding this offense to just 21 points, I think the Seattle defense clearly played well enough to win this game. The Seattle offense would be another story.
Would-a, Could-a, Should-a
America's last image of the Seattle offense was fitting indeed. Eight seconds left, the ‘Hawks facing fourth-and-seven from the Steeler 23. Matt Hasselbeck flings the ball down the middle of the field. Jerrrramy Stevens, standing in the shadow of the goal line, drops it. Even if he catches it, of course, he will be immediately tackled, time will run out and Seattle still will not score. Even if he had caught it AND managed to score, the game would still be over and Seattle would still lose. And, of course, none of that mattered anyway, because Jerrrramy (one r for each dropped pass) dropped it anyway. As I said, a fitting ending to the game.
My most enduring image of this Super Bowl, though, will be the play just before. Third-and-ten, 27 seconds left, down by eleven points. Madden and Michaels are chirping about the combination of things that Seattle needs to do to give them a chance to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. Of all the things discussed that needed to happen, the one thing that Seattle (and Hasselbeck) could not do is the very thing they did. With 27 seconds left and facing an already improbable comeback, Matt never even looked down-field as he dumped the ball off to Stevens in the right flat. He was immediately tackled (in bounds, of course). The play gained three yards, and the clock kept ticking. True, their situation was already critical, but with half a minute left, there was still a faint possibility. After that mindless flat pass (why didn't Jerrrramy drop that one? He'd dropped so many others!) even the faintest hope was extinguished.
Matt what were you thinking? I'm really just curious.
My expectation going into this Super Bowl was that the Steelers would dominate. Seattle is a good team, but I didn't expect them to play with the Steelers on either side of the ball. What in fact developed was a game that was Seattle's for the taking. That they didn't will leave them shaking their heads in the Pacific Northwest for the rest of a long, long off-season. This is the one that somehow got away.
Hasselbeck for MVP?
In his post-Super Bowl "NFL Match-Up" show, long-time tapehead Ron Jaworski named Matt Hasselbeck as his Super Bowl MVP. Jaws thought he was the best player on the field. And while I don't quite agree with that assessment, in reviewing the game, I think a case could be made.
With quarterbacks, the first consideration is their numbers. Matt's were nothing to write home about. Throwing 49 times, he finished with just 26 completions for 273 yards, 1 TD and 1 pick. It's hard to build an MVP case on a 67.8 QB Rating. Remember though, that Matt was betrayed a good bit by his pass catchers. His day was actually much better than these numbers suggest.
Jerramy Stevens was the most visible weak-link in the Seattle passing game, with more passes dropped (4) than caught (3). What's mostly forgotten, though, is that these were down-field throws in critical situations that would have netted significant yardage. I estimate about 80 yards of passing lost on Jerramy Stevens' drops.
About as damaging were a couple of catches that Darrell Jackson didn't make. Twice in the last minute of the first half, Hasselbeck found Jackson behind the Steeler defense down the right sideline. Both times Matt delivered the ball in good shape, and both times Jackson failed to keep his feet in bounds while he made the catch. He didn't even try to do that feet-dragging thing that you see so many other receivers do. I'm not saying that either catch would have been particularly easy. But I do know that many other receivers would have caught them both. This was about another 75 yards worth of passes not caught.
If Stevens and Jackson make the plays they're expected to make, you can add six receptions and about 150 yards to Hasselbeck's totals. His line now reads 32-49 for 423 yards. If either of those passes to Jackson result in a TD (and either one looked like it might), his passer rating suddenly improves to 97.58. Now is he you're MVP?
Additionally, there were three other completions called back by penalties. One was the hotly disputed pass interference call against Jackson. The other two were holding calls - including the bad holding call that proved to be the turning point of the game. These passes accounted for 52 more yards (and a touchdown). Now his line reads 35 of 52 for 475 yards and 3 TDs. His rating is now up to 107.45. How about now?
For most of Super Bowl XL, Matt Hasselbeck played at a very high level. He was very accurate with his throws and decisive with his reads. He moved around in the pocket to buy time when he needed to, and scrambled up field 3 other times for 35 yards and 2 more first downs. For the few mistakes he made, Matt Hasselbeck contributed an awful lot of positive plays.
But, as is frequently the story with Matt, his few mistakes came at the worst possible moments and helped decide the game. These include a bad sack that Matt took to end a drive with about six minutes left in the game. Another was the critical interception in that decisive series of plays early in the fourth quarter. A few more occurred in that badly bungled two minute drill that ended the game.
Now, I will be the first to admit that down by eleven points with no timeouts and 1:51 left in the game is not the optimal situation. Nonetheless, it's not an impossible situation. Almost two minutes is a lot of football game left, if you use it wisely. For some reason, Matt seemed adamant about throwing the ball over the middle or in the flat -- the worst imaginable choices. None of the passes thrown in that sequence were to receivers who had any real chance to get out of bounds and stop the clock. Luckily for the Seahawks, Matt missed with most of these attempts. Unfortunately, he did not miss them all. Two of the three passes that Jerramy Stevens actually caught on this day were pointless dump-off passes in the waning moments of the game. These two catches were good for all of nine yards. They cost Seattle 42 of their final 111 seconds.
In the fourth quarter, Seattle ran 24 plays for 124 yards and held the ball for 8:43. They scored 0 points in the quarter.
And if the arm of Matt Hasselbeck is all the offense you've got, then you have to accept this result. You took your best shot with your best weapon and it wasn't good enough. But Matt isn't the only weapon in Seattle. In fact, he's not even their best weapon. There was no reason at all for him to finish with 49 pass attempts. The Seahawks did have other viable options.
Tis Better to Have Rushed and Lost
For my choice as Super Bowl MVP, I will take Seattle Left Tackle Walter Jones. If you taped or otherwise recorded SB XL, I encourage you to cue it up and enjoy one of the most dominating efforts you'll see by an offensive lineman in a Super Bowl. Several times Jones drove Pittsburgh end Kimo von Oelhoffen all the way up the line of scrimmage and into the oncoming pursuit. His mismatches against LB Joey Porter were even more pronounced. On this day, Walter was a man playing against boys.
Speaking of Joey Porter, some of you were aware of his week-long trash talking in regards to Jerramy Stevens, who was – according to Porter – too soft to block him. This proved to be untrue. In the game, Stevens lined up against Porter to block him in the running game exactly twice, and won decisively both times. The first time, Stevens actually got under Porter's pads and drove him completely out of the television picture. Porter didn't get pushed out of the picture the second time, but was unable to get off the block as the runner ran right past him. After the play was over, Porter was seen saying something to Stevens. I have no idea what that was, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't "nice block." None of this atones for Stevens' four drops, but it was still nice to see.
Anyway, if Holmgren had been paying attention to waht was happening on the left side of the line of scrimmage, Walter Jones might have changed the course of the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for Seattle, nothing could convince Holmgren to run the ball. The game plan called for the forward pass, and that's what they would do.
Of 31 first down plays, Seattle threw 19 times. The Seahawks had 50 offensive snaps in the game during which they either led, were tied, or trailed by less than a touchdown. Of these plays, 34 were called passes. And when he did run the ball, he started running it to the wrong side. 7 of Shaun Alexander's first 9 runs went to the right side, where Sean Locklear wasn't having a very good game at all. That was the principle reason that Alexander ended the first half with just 31 yards on 10 carries. It wasn't until the third quarter that the Seahawks took any advantage at all of their dominance of the left side of the line of scrimmage. And even then, Holmgren refused to stick with it. Regular season MVP Shaun Alexander finished with only 20 carries (for 95 yards), and only three times the entire evening did he carry the ball on consecutive plays.
It would have been one thing if Holmgren could have said in the post-game press conference, "well, they had nine in the box and they were stopping the run early, so we felt we needed to throw the ball to loosen them up a bit." Or even, "well, we started falling behind and I felt that we needed to start throwing the ball to get back in the game." But neither of these was the case.
Alexander gained 8 yards on his first run and never looked back. Unlike the hit-and-miss affair that was the Pittsburgh running game, the Seahawks gained at least four yards on 19 of their 25 running plays. Alexander himself gained at least four yards on 15 of his 20 carries. And once they started running him behind Jones he did even better. Shaun Alexander finished his season gaining at least four yards on 12 of his last 13 running attempts. Those last 13 runs accounted for 77 yards. The Seattle running game was never really stopped at all by the Steeler defense. They just waited for Seattle to abandon it.
And as for falling behind in the game, going into the fourth quarter it looked like it was going to be the Steelers who would be pondering when to abandon the running game and go to the air. But in football as in life, you only get so much grace. If you keep ignoring opportunities, any little thing can ultimately trip you up. In this case, one bad call by an official would set up the chain reaction that would knock Seattle out of this game.
The Turning Point
The only time in the game that the Seahawks looked like they might get serious about running the football was in the early moments of the fourth quarter. They had ended the third quarter by driving from their own 2 up to near midfield. As the fourth quarter began, Alexander carried the ball three times in the first four plays. Suddenly, down by just four points, Seattle had a first-and-ten at the Pittsburgh 19 yardline.
There would only be one time in the entire game that Jerramy Stevens would catch a tough pass, over the middle, in traffic. Ironically enough it wouldn't even count. On this first-and-ten play, Hasselbeck lasered a fastball right down the middle. At the one-yardline, Stevens gathered it in, took the big hit from both safeties, and held onto the ball. For a moment, it was first-and-goal on the one, with Seattle poised to regain the lead with just over 12 minutes left in the game.
Except there was a flag. Sean Locklear was called for holding. Making matters worse, it was a bad call. Sean Locklear misplayed the rush by Clark Haggans, but he didn't hold him. It seems that he got too close to Haggans and got too far under his pads so that he (Locklear) lost his balance as Haggans went around him. He ended up grabbing Haggan's right shoulderpad - which happens all the time in pass protection. But he did so awkwardly. He sort of grabbed it from behind and while he was half-falling, so it drew the attention of the official.
Now, instead of first-and-goal, it's first-and-twenty. A Casey Hampton sack made it second-and-25. Here, Shaun Alexander slipped around left end for seven important yards. Now at the Steeler 27, Seattle was back in field goal range and could cut the lead to one point. On third-and-long, you might think that Seattle would play it a little safe. But on third-and-eighteen, Hasselbeck threw into coverage down the left side and saw his pass intercepted.
To this injury was added a more insulting injury. Hasselbeck was flagged for 15 yards for making the tackle. Officially, he was penalized for making a low block. Actually he never even touched the blocker. The penalty didn't hurt as much as the interception did, but it did advance the Steelers to the 44-yard line. Four plays later, Roethlisberger pitched the ball to Willie Parker going left. Parker handed off to Antwan Randle-El coming back to the right. Randle-El tossed a perfect pass to Hines Ward in the end zone, and the scoring for Super Bowl XL was concluded.
With nearly nine minutes left, the Seahawks really didn't need to abandon the run -- especially since it was working so well – but they did. Alexander carried only twice more. Had they turned to the running game earlier, things might have been different. But there were a lot of "if onlys" connected with this game. In a sense, the Seahawks won all the little pieces of the game, but somehow managed to lose it anyway.
In the final analysis, you can't really say Holmgren was wrong to put this game on Hasselbeck's shoulders. As pointed out earlier, with minimal support from his receiving corp, he could have put up MVP numbers. Obviously, there were match-ups there that favored the Seahawks. I still don't think it makes sense.
They could have gotten five yards a carry around left end all night if they wanted. With the ball in Hasselbeck's hands, Holmgrens game plan is put at risk by the three most unrealiable elements in his offense: Matt Hasselbeck's head, Darrell Jackson's feet and Jerramy Stevens' hands. Why he should choose to throw the ball is a mystery. But then, who ever knows what thoughts and passions run through a coach's mind in the heat of the Super Bowl.
Maybe he was thinking about buying a Hummer.