On February 5, 2006, the Seattle Seahawks play in Super Bowl XL (No. 40), marking their first appearance in the National Football League’s championship game. They face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Detroit’s Ford Field. Although they have a better regular-season record and a stronger offense than the Steelers, the Seahawks make too many mistakes and give up three long plays. That combination, along with some disputed calls by the officials, results in a 21-10 Pittsburgh victory.
Reaching the Big Game
The Seahawks and their fans had been waiting 30 years for this. The franchise that was launched in 1976 had not won a playoff game since 1984. Only once had the Seahawks come close to a Super Bowl, way back in 1983 when they lost the American Football Conference championship game to the Los Angeles Raiders. But the 2005 Seahawks were different. They had a head coach, Mike Holmgren (b. 1948), who had won a Super Bowl when he coached the Green Bay Packers. They had a skilled veteran quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck (b. 1975). They had outstanding offensive linemen, especially left tackle Walter Jones (b. 1974) and left guard Steve Hutchinson (b. 1977). And they had a running back, Shaun Alexander (b. 1977), who had gained more yards and scored more touchdowns than anyone else in the league.
The Seahawks started the regular season slowly, and then roared to 11 consecutive victories. They finished with a franchise-best record of 13 wins and 3 losses, they scored more points than any other team, and Alexander was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Fan frenzy built as the Seahawks powered their way through two playoff games at Seattle’s Qwest Field (now CenturyLink Field). They beat the Washington Redskins 20-10, and then defeated the Carolina Panthers 34-14 to win the National Football Conference championship and secure a Super Bowl berth. A week later a crowd estimated at 20,000 gathered outside the stadium to see the players board buses and head for the airport and the flight to Detroit in their customized Boeing 757, provided by owner Paul Allen (1953-2018).
The backgrounds of the two Super Bowl teams were very different. Unlike the upstart Seahawks, the Steelers had a storied history. They had won four Super Bowls, although none since 1980, and were among the best known and widely followed of the NFL’s franchises. These Steelers had made it into the playoffs as the lowest-ranked of six American Football Conference teams, but still managed to win three games on the road -- no small feat -- to reach the Super Bowl. Their national fame and Pittsburgh’s much closer proximity to Detroit resulted in a Ford Field crowd dominated by Steelers fans swirling their team’s trademark "Terrible Towels." Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Farmer wrote that Steelers towels outnumbered Seahawks towels 100 to 1 in the stands and concluded "Ford Field could have been mistaken for (Pittsburgh’s) Heinz Field with a roof."
The game started smoothly for Seattle, but then hit a snag. A first-quarter touchdown pass from Hasselbeck to wide receiver Darrell Jackson (b. 1978) was nullified when Jackson was penalized for pass interference. Still, the Seahawks had a 3-0 lead late in the second quarter when Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (b. 1982) completed a 37-yard pass to wide receiver Hines Ward (b. 1976). Three plays later Roethlisberger tried to run the ball into the end zone from Seattle’s 1-yard line. The officials said he made it. The Seahawks insisted he didn’t. The call was reviewed and upheld, and at halftime the Steelers led 7-3.
Two plays into the third quarter, Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker (b. 1980) broke free and scored a 75-yard touchdown, the longest run in Super Bowl history. The Steelers were threatening to score again when Seahawks cornerback Kelly Herndon (b. 1976) intercepted a Roethlisberger pass and returned it 76 yards. That set up a touchdown pass by Hasselbeck to tight end Jerramy Stevens (b. 1979), cutting Pittsburgh’s lead to 14-10.
With the third quarter winding down, momentum seemed on Seattle’s side. A play from Hasselbeck to Stevens gained 17 yards and put the ball at the Steelers’ 1-yard line, but a holding penalty on tackle Sean Locklear (b. 1981) erased the play. Hasselbeck was tackled for a loss on the next play and then threw an interception, ending the drive. The Steelers answered with a trick play that proved to be the game-winner. Roethlisberger pitched the ball to Parker who handed it to wide receiver Antwaan Randle El (b. 1979), a former college quarterback, who passed to Ward for a 43-yard touchdown that finished the scoring with roughly nine minutes remaining.
Focusing on the Penalties
The Seahawks had not played their best. Their kicker, Josh Brown (b. 1979), missed two of his three attempted field goals. Stevens dropped several passes. Their safeties got fooled and burned on the Steelers’ long plays. Roethlisberger, who was just shy of 24 years old, became not only the youngest quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl, but also the one with the worst passing rating (22.6). Holmgren and his players admitted that their mistakes made the difference, but they also questioned some of the penalties. So did Seattle fans, bitterly. Holmgren fueled the discontent at a Qwest Field rally the next day.
Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947), King County Executive Ron Sims (b. 1948), and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) were among an estimated crowd of 15,000 that welcomed the team home. Speaking from a platform erected in the center of the field, Holmgren told the throng, "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" (Broom).
Normally a coach criticizing officials is fined by the NFL commissioner. In this case, the league issued a statement saying the Super Bowl had been properly officiated, but -- perhaps tellingly -- did not fine or publicly reprimand Holmgren.
The Ref Admits Mistakes
For those still believing Seattle was robbed in Detroit, a sliver of vindication came four and a half years later. Referee Bill Leavy, the head official at Super Bowl XL, was on a tour of NFL training camps to discuss rule changes for the upcoming season. On August 7, 2010, while visiting Seahawks headquarters in Renton, he admitted that he'd made mistakes during the Super Bowl.
"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 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" (Boyle).
Although Leavy didn’t specify which calls he meant, the most likely ones were the holding penalty against Locklear that erased what would have been a first down on the Pittsburgh 1-yard line, and an illegal block called against Hasselbeck when he was trying to make a tackle after throwing an interception.
Leavy stopped short of saying his mistakes were decisive. And most observers -- outside of those in Seattle -- had contended all along that the officiating, while questionable, didn’t have as much to do with the outcome as the Seahawks’ own blunders.