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The Super Bowl With an Asterisk

Underdogs do win Super Bowls often enough. But there is a reason, or rather a heavily researched summary conclusion, that more often than not they don't. Blowout wins by underdogs are as rare as Seattle fans outside of Seattle.
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I normally write on the subjects of economics and politics. What happened in Super Bowl 48 is a much less complex subject. It boils down to this: What happens when the best offense in the NFL meets the best defense in the NFL? The betting line was Denver by 3 points. How could the professional handicappers in Las Vegas be so wrong?

Underdogs do win Super Bowls often enough. But there is a reason, or rather a heavily researched summary conclusion, that more often than not they don't. Blowout wins by underdogs are as rare as Seattle fans outside of Seattle.

Both of the participating teams in this year's Super Bowl have records shaded by their use of questionable tactics as detailed in this WSJ piece, the second of two by WSJ articles on the subject. What the article fails to mention is that the "pick" plays used by the Broncos are well designed to be executed just within the rules. They have been flagged for it, but that's when the execution and timing of the play was blown resulting in their being outside the rules. It's a fine line to which you should arguably not get so close. Seattle has a different approach to pushing the envelope of the rules. Seattle, it seems according to an investigation detailed in an earlier WSJ piece, deliberately breaks the pass interference rules as a team tactic. They do so once, and if there is no flag they do it again, then repeat that tactic until they get flagged enough to determine that they are going to be flagged for interference enough to be detrimental. Analysis of their penalty stats seems to reveal that three flags in a game is their threshold for stopping the tactic.

Granted, the kind of individual gaming of the PI and defensive holding rules has been going on on an individual player basis a for a number of years. Sportscasters euphemistically call it veteran play when a defender conceals a foul from the referees by slight of hand. Sometimes they're caught and sometimes they're not. But no team, to my knowledge, has ever made fouling receivers a part of their game plan the way Seattle is under suspicion of doing.

There are basically three rules involving pass defensive fouls. First is illegal contact. A pass defender is only allowed to touch, "jam," a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The second is holding, where a defender grabs hold of the receiver, no matter the distance from the line of scrimmage, while he is running his pass pattern. Both 1 and 2 apply before the ball has left the quarterbacks hands. No. 3 is pass interference, which only applies after a pass is in the air. Pass interference occurs when a defender obstructs the receivers attempt to catch the ball, by tackling, pushing, tugging, tripping, holding or blocking the receiver's view of the ball before he has a chance to catch it.

As the forward pass has become more effective with better trained and athletic quarterbacks and receivers, the advantage has turned to the offenses of professional football in a big way. High-scoring, pass-dominated games are now the norm rather than the exception they were even 20 years ago. To give defenses a chance, the NFL has quietly started letting individual defenders get away with interference type plays that are not too obvious to be ignored. This change has resulted in a new vernacular for pass defenders. When they foul consistently they are referred to as being physical players and team pass defense is referred to in terms of their "physicality," both euphemisms for cheating and being allowed to do it.

Pass interference may not sound like a big deal. As a former defensive corner who learned the game from two CFL pros myself, I can tell you though, just how little effort it takes to break up a pass play if you are willing to take a flag. A little tug on the shirt or waistband, a hip into the receivers hip or a push, disrupt the timing of a pass and, as receivers are a moving target, timing is everything.

Known to be the most penalized team in the NFL, Seattle rode this "physicality" of their defense to the Super Bowl. In that venue they conducted a symposium on how to use pass interference to shut down a record setting pass offense.

The easily observable Seattle game plan to defend against the phenomenal accuracy and game acumen of Peyton Manning was simplicity itself. They used a four-man pass rush, and brought their safeties up close to line of scrimmage. This simple ploy shut down the short pass catch and run aspect of the Broncos, the mainstay of the offense. To counter this is relatively easy, just throw a few long touchdown passes into the area where the safeties should normally be. The Seahawks should have been destroyed with this defensive formation, but they weren't. When the Broncos went to the long pass to back off the safeties, their receivers were interfered with, stopping several easy touchdowns that would have caused the Seahawks to give up on stopping the short catch and run. Tellingly, the only time the Broncos scored was right after a pass interference call on the Seahawks. Suddenly, it looked like the offense the world had been seeing for the previous 17 games.

The one Bronco TD and the two point conversion seemed to unmask the coordinated use of pass interference by the Seahawks. The Seahawks were interfering until they got penalized late in the third quarter. For that offensive possession by the Broncos they stopped breaking the rules. On the next Broncos possession they started up again, got no flags and kept doing it for the rest of the game.

Looking at the by opponent penalty stats of the Seahawks it's easy to observe a strong correlation between the number of times the Hawks were flagged for PI/defensive holding and their win/loss record. The more times they are flagged the more often they lose. Statistically, pass interference flags on a team is not a strong factor in winning or losing games compared to say turnovers and completed passes, etc.. It would appear, and only the league can say for sure, that when the Seahawks are consistently being called for PI type infractions that they back off and play by the rules. This is squares with the observations of the practices of the Seahawks by Mike Pereira, former VP of officiating for the NFl as reported in the WSJ article.

Two details of recent NFL officiating now become important to understanding what the Seahawks have done. One is that referees have been counseled by the NFL to hold onto their flags when they see minor violations. The second is that prior to the Super Bowl, the commissioner, Roger Goddell, is reported to have requested that the officials take it easy on calling pass interference and holding unless the game got out of hand. Forty-three to 8 is pretty out of hand. I guess Roger Goddell planned to make it a competitive game but was not aware that the Seahawks game plan was, and has been all season, to pass interfere and hold until they were called on it more than twice.

Some sportscaster types call the Seahawk kind of cynical exploitation of referee reluctance simply smart. Teams in the Western Conference of the NFL call it simply cheating.

The Seahawk pass interference reliant defense coupled with their tip of the iceberg suspensions for performance enhancing drug use and exploitation of the game's referees and NFL policy all combined to make Super Bowl 48 a game with an asterisk in most sports fan's minds. How do you completely shut out Peyton Manning for all but the minute or so of the third quarter, following the one Seattle PI call, when he then scores immediately?

The NFL can't afford to let the Seahawks continue in their cynical ways for two reasons. One is that the success Seattle has had with this cynical tactics will force other teams to emulate it. The forward pass will then cease to be a part of the game of football. Two, people will not want to watch old school football where the offense is running the football for 3 yards at a time and the NFL revenues will crater. Of course given the level of corruption exemplified by the Seahawks as a glimpse into our football future, maybe the end of the NFL is a just as well thing.

Rules are made to make for a fair contest and thus true test of athletic and mental abilities at the game. To systematically break those rules by cynical exploitation of a soft focus desire by NFL executive body to keep the game interesting for spectators will bring those rules into hard focus. Either that or it's the end of the NFL. We'll know they handled it when the Seahawks have an 8-8 season next year, because that's what their penalty stats interpreted through the lens of their cynical tactics indicates they should have had this year.