Justice, Just Not In Time
After Saints get jobbed on “NOLA No Call,” NFL owners vote to allow review of pass interference
The New England Patriots are Super Bowl LIII Champions. They lifted the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 3, after defeating the Los Angeles Rams, 13-3.
But there will always be a question of “What if?” attached to the memory of the game, especially in the minds of New Orleans Saints fans who faithfully believe their team was prevented from deservedly reaching Super Bowl LIII by an officiating omission.
Let’s go back to the end of the NFC Championship Game, with the Black & Gold driving toward the Mercedes-Benz Superdome’s Girod Street endzone. With the score knotted at 20 and about 90 seconds on the clock, the Saints faced third and 10 from the Los Angeles 13-yard line. The Rams had one time out left, so a first down would almost certainly mean the Saints could kneel the ball to run the clock to about 30 seconds, kick a field goal to go ahead 23-20, hang tough on defense for about 20 seconds, and get ready to go to Super Bowl LII.
Drew Brees targeted Tommylee Lewis for what looked like a game-winning touchdown, at best, or a first and goal to go from the six, at worst. But as Lewis was adjusting to make the catch, Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman launched himself headfirst at Lewis and delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit that prevented him from making the reception.
Players, coaches, administrators, media members, fans and even Robey-Coleman expected a flag to be thrown for what seemed like a choice of obvious penalties – pass interference, defenseless receiver, illegal contact or helmet-to-helmet contact – could and should have been called. None came.
Replays showed what everyone, well, almost everyone saw. Still no flag.
Further replays, from multiple angles, showed side judge Gary Cavaletto and down judge Patrick Turner were well positioned to see the infraction. Even referee Bill Vinovich had a clear view from the backfield. Nothing. Some have noticed that one official appeared to reach for his flag before he was seemingly overruled with a glare from one of his crewmates. One official said he thought the pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage, which would have made Robey-Coleman’s play legal. The ball wasn’t tipped, but there was no conversation among the crew to discuss what happened and make the right call.
Instead of getting the ball first and goal to go and the ability to bleed the clock with three kneel downs before kicking a field goal with less than a handful of seconds left, the Saints had to settle for three. They had a 23-20 lead, but there was nearly a minute and a half left to go.
Unfortunately, there was enough time on the clock for the Rams to receive the ball, move up the field, and position themselves for a game-tying field goal to send the game to overtime. The Saints won the toss, received, and again began moving before Brees threw up a fluttering ball aimed for wide receiver Michael Thomas. It appeared Thomas’ route was illegally blocked by Rams’ defensive back John Johnson, III, and his ability to catch the ball was interfered with. Thomas was knocked out of position and Johnson intercepted the pass. Replays showed that not only was Thomas interfered with, but Brees was hit in the facemask by Rams’ Dante Fowler, Jr. Both instances could have been flagged, but weren’t. Turnover.
A few plays later, the Rams moved into position to attempt a game-winning, 57-yard field goal, converted it, and stole the game 26-23.
Immediately after the game, the NFL called head coach Sean Payton to apologize for the no call against Robey-Coleman, who after the game admitted his strategy on the play was to take Lewis out to prevent a touchdown, even if he incurred the penalty for interference.
“I got away with one tonight,” Robey-Coleman said after the game.
“They blew the call,” Payton said from the podium at the post-game press conference. “They said it should never have not been a call. They said not only was it interference, it was helmet-to-helmet. They just – they couldn't believe it.”
Neither could anyone else.
Payton, a member of the league’s competition committee which proposes and reviews the rules of the game, made it his mission this offseason to address the no call and force change. He garnered the support of all of the other head coaches in the league to make a change. On Tuesday, at the league’s annual owners’ meetings, all but one voted to support a one-year trial in which pass interference calls and no calls be reviewed.
After owners approved the measure 31-1, ESPN quoted Payton saying, “There was an owe-it-to-the-game responsibility. And really I mean that. I think it's important that this isn't going to be perfect always. We know that. The mere shape of the ball tells you it's not going to bounce the same way. But these are fouls that the analysts are able to tell us they're the most impactful fouls. I think we got it right.”
Saints owner Gayle Benson backed up her head coach’s sentiment, the network reported.
“I felt like it [the rule] needed to change. It could happen to anyone,” Benson said. “It could have happened to any of the other 31 teams. It happened to us. But I wanted the rule to change. It will be better for everybody because it will never happen again. … I'm very proud of Sean. He did a great job.”
The New England Patriots are Super Bowl LIII Champions. That won’t change. But it is reassuring to know that the anger, bargaining, depression and avoidance of the Super Bowl that Saints fans endured hasn’t been in vain. They didn’t get the vindication of replaying the ending of the NFC Championship or having its outcome overturned. However, their pain was felt around the league and changes were made in hopes that it never happens again.
In the end, with this rule justice will prevail. Unfortunately for Saints fans, it came two months too late.