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How Much Did Super Bowl XL Officiating Affect Outcome?

Bill Leavy, the referee of Super Bowl XL between the Steelers and Seahawks (Win Probability graph), recently apologized for his mistakes in the game. "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," he admitted.

Leavy is referring to two critical calls he made in the 4th quarter. But there were a couple other controversial calls earlier in the game, each going against the Seahawks. In this post, I'll look at each situation and measure their impact on the game. Each of the calls were questionable to varying degrees, and I'll leave it up to others to decide whether they were defensible or not.

The Offensive Pass Interference

The first controversial call was an offensive pass interference penalty on Seattle in the 1st quarter that nullified a touchdown. It was tied 0-0 with 2:08 left in the quarter. Had the touchdown stood, SEA would have a 7-point lead, kicking off to the Steelers, good for a 0.71 WP. The penalty left SEA with a 1st and 20 at the PIT 29, good for a 0.60 WP. The call cost SEA a difference of 0.11 WP.

The Goal-line Touchdown

The second call was on a goal-line QB sneak by PIT late in the 2nd quarter. With 2:00 remaining, SEA challenged the ruling that Roethlisberger broke the plane of the end zone, but Leavy declined to overturn the call. The TD gave PIT a 0.72 WP, and assuming PIT would go for the FG to take the 3-0 lead had the call been overturned, PIT would have a 0.60 WP. That's a difference of 0.12 WP.

The 4th Qtr Offensive Holding

The next controversial calls were the two that Leavy, in his own words, "kicked." With the score PIT 14, SEA 10 and 12:35 left in the 4th qtr, SEA had a 1st and 10 on the PIT 19 yard line. SEA completed a pass that put them on PIT's 1 yard line, but tackle Sean Locklear was flagged for offensive holding on the play. Had there been no penalty, SEA would have had a 0.56 WP, but the penalty gave them a 1st and 20 at the 29, good for a 0.42 WP. That's a difference of 0.14 WP, and it gave the upper hand in the game from SEA to PIT.

The Low Block Penalty

Later in the same series, Hasselbeck through an interception and was called for a low block on the ensuing action, good for a 15-yard penalty. The interception was crucial to say the least, and was more costly than any of the controversial calls. But an extra 15 yards of field possession is also very important in the 4th qtr of a one-score game. Without the low block penalty, PIT would have had a 1st and 10 on their own 29, good for a 0.75 WP. The extra 15 yards put PIT on their 44, worth 0.78 WP, for a difference of 0.03 WP.

In total, it was 0.11 for the offensive pass interference call, 0.12 for PIT's upheld TD, 0.14 for the offensive holding in the 4th qtr, and 0.03 for the low block penalty. To put those numbers in perspective, if you spot a team a touchdown to start a game, it would be worth 0.22 WP.

Each play has to be considered in isolation because had one call gone the other way, it's likely the rest of the game would have unfolded differently. For example, had the offensive holding call not happened, SEA would be on the 1 yard line, and would have never faced the 3rd and 18 situation that led to the interception.

Whether you believe any or all of these calls were bad is a mostly matter of opinion. But the assertion that had the calls gone the other way, the outcome of the game would have been unaffected or only slightly affected is grossly mistaken. 

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The fact that SEA was even in position to take the lead in the 4th quarter was remarkable. Early in the 3rd quarter, PIT had a 14-3 lead with a 1st down on SEA's 11 yard line. SEA managed to force a turnover, score a TD, then get the ball back to take the upper hand early in the 4th quarter. Had they managed to win, it would have been one of the most improbable comebacks in Super Bowl history.


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