By Michael Wilbon
Monday, February 6, 2006
DETROIT It wasn't a classic, not to anybody other than the Pittsburgh Steelers. There were too many mistakes that offset the number of big plays, even record plays. And the poor zebras, who have struggled through the entire postseason, tried their best to ruin the whole day. But style points are for the Olympics, not the Super Bowl. And once we get past Monday morning, history will know only that the Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowl XL.
What was a largely unsatisfying evening when it comes to athletic theater will be remembered as the fifth Super Bowl victory for one of the NFL's great franchises, the Steelers. The record won't show that the first half of play looked more preseason than super, only that Ben Roethlisberger made some critical runs, Antwaan Randle El threw a beautiful option pass for a touchdown and the Seahawks played too much like simpletons, particularly over the final few minutes, to be champions.
The Steelers, after winning 21-10, now have one for the thumb and Coach Bill Cowher has, simply enough, one. It was a happily-ever-after victory for Cowher, for what appeared to be the 60,000 or so Steelers fans who commandeered tickets from every available source, for Jerome Bettis and his homecoming, and for the host city of Detroit, whose peeps embraced their blue-collared brethren from Pittsburgh and seemed wholly satisfied with victory over the polite foreigners visiting from the Pacific Northwest.
It was probably a fitting victory for an NFL season that was mostly unspectacular, though there is still nothing but praise for the Steelers, who fought back from a difficult midseason to not only reach the playoffs but win three straight games on the road before arriving in Detroit for what amounted to a coronation.
While the Seahawks agonize over their blunders, the Steelers get to celebrate a victory in which they didn't play particularly well. Real champs aren't afraid to acknowledge that, even appreciate it. Roethlisberger said he had never been so nervous in his two years of pro football. "To not play my best and still win is amazing," said Roethlisberger, at 23 the youngest quarterback to win the Super Bowl. "I couldn't get it done throwing the ball, for whatever reason. So we had to do it a different way and run the ball."
When someone asked Big Ben if he was thankful his supporting cast played well enough to win, he said: "They're not my supporting cast; I'm their supporting cast. Two interceptions -- that's the recipe for disaster -- yet, we won. I've bragged on these guys all year and always will."
Still, there's this little matter of putting into perspective the start to Roethlisberger's career. You win this quickly, you automatically are compared to Montana, Aikman, Brady. "Look, those guys are the best," Big Ben said. "To put me up there with them -- I wouldn't put me in that group."
But as Hines Ward, his teammate and Super Bowl XL MVP said: "One game away as a rookie and he wins the Super Bowl in the second year? Imagine that -- and there are so many years left."
While the players have every right to revel in being the last standing, those watching had every right to hope for something a little more entertaining than what we got. Aside from Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run and Kelly Herndon's 76-yard interception return, the most exciting thing about the game might have been halftime -- or at least the controversy that raged in some quarters here.
The Super Bowl has become such a cultural force in America, everything is scrutinized to death, some of it petty and some legit. Take for example, the NFL's decision to make the Rolling Stones the halftime entertainment.
Normally, that's a no-brainer, a decision that would draw almost universal praise. But there are two cities in America where there simply should not be a band imported to play at a quintessential American event, which is how the NFL packages the Super Bowl: Nashville and Detroit.
A whole lot of folks here were upset over the Stones being picked to play when Detroit has an unparalleled and historic stable of artists across the music spectrum. The two things associated with Detroit are cars and music, yet the NFL favored a European band, meaning the league passed on all of Motown, not to mention locals such as Madonna, Anita Baker, Eminem and Kid Rock.
The great Smokey Robinson performed across the street from Ford Field on Friday night, so chances are he was available. And if Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder can do pregame and the national anthem, then why not reward them with the honor of doing the big show? Seeing Aretha perform in Detroit is, for some of us, the equivalent of seeing Frank Sinatra perform in New York or Michael Jordan perform in Chicago.
It makes me wonder if some artists, particularly in the R&B tradition, are being forced to pay for Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction from a couple of years ago.
Yes, this is what the Super Bowl has become, especially when the game is pretty much a snoozer. This is how big it is. Who's in the pregame? Who's singing the anthem? Who's at halftime? Who has commercial time? How did the Steelers fans get all those tickets?
At times, it didn't look or sound like there was a single Seahawks fan in the building. To say the crowd was 90 percent in support of the Steelers is an understatement. No one should ever call Super Bowl XL a neutral-site game. Not that anybody was at fault, but no Super Bowl in history has ever provided such a home-field advantage.
The Seahawks had a chance to keep the place quiet but made one bonehead play after another, from holding calls to dropping passes that would have extended drives and perhaps led to scores. Jerramy Stevens (three dropped passes) was even softer than Joey Porter suggested. And I've seen better clock management from high school teams than the Seahawks exhibited.
And when Seattle wasn't bungling, the referees were.
Seattle should have been ahead by a couple of touchdowns, yet found themselves down 7-3 at halftime because the referees blew a call. Roethlisberger's third-down dive into the end zone simply was not a touchdown, though it was called that on the field. Because less than two minutes remained, the call was reviewed in the booth. It was clearly and conclusively not a touchdown. Big Ben didn't get the ball across the goal line. Yet, the call stood.
Another penalty assessed on the Seahawks early in the fourth quarter, which negated a gain that took the Seahawks to the 1, also never happened. A penalty against Hasselbeck for blocking below the waist when, in fact, he was trying to tackle the interceptor, was erroneous. It would be irresponsible to say the officials were intentionally cheating Seattle. But the bad calls hurt Seattle's chances, no doubt.
Still, one gets the feeling the Steelers would have won a seven-game series, oh, 4-3. Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers' offensive coordinator, is wonderfully creative, particularly with Roethlisberger, Randle El and Ward. And the defense is too hard-hitting. Hasselbeck played his rear end off, but his receivers are unreliable (isn't that a familiar theme?) and Shaun Alexander didn't have the kind of MVP performance his team needed to win the game. And in the end, the team that should have won did win. The Steelers beat the teams with the first, second and third seedings in the AFC and the top seed in the NFC. There's absolutely nothing more a team could do than that in the postseason -- nothing.