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Ref’ed Up

No call, no comments, no credibility for NFL



Inaction from the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell on the controversial ending of the NFC Championship is creating a credibility crisis for the league and its signature event, the Super Bowl.

associated press

 

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Less than a week after missing out on capping an amazing 2018 season with a trip to Super Bowl LIII, New Orleans Saints fans are spread across the spectrum of the five stages of dealing with an unfathomable loss. More than 700,000 have signed a petition to have the end of the NFC Championship Game replayed or its result overturned. Some have filed lawsuits with the same aim. Due to time and logistics restraints, it’s unlikely they will get the vindication they feel they deserve.

The outcry, of course, is over the way the game was officiated near its conclusion. Put simply, the officials made what’s being described as the worst non-call in sports history.

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.

For those who say the Saints had an opportunity to win in overtime, I not only point to the aforementioned missed calls on the last Saints possession, but I also have to ask how anyone – especially the Saints’ players and coaches – could believe that the game would be officiated fairly following such an obvious, egregious no call.

For those who say the Saints didn’t make enough plays to win, bull. If the game was called correctly, it is almost certain the Saints would have won and moved on to the Super Bowl.

For those who say the refs missed facemask calls against the Saints, I say there were missed penalties on both sides. But none were as obvious as Robey-Coleman’s.   

In the days after the game, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell remained silent on the missed call, the outcome of the game, and any possible remedy to ensure no team has to endure this type of fiasco again. In the void, fans have looked at video clips of the play in question like the Zapruder film. They have poured over the rulebook to see if the outcome can be changed or the game replayed from the point of the missed call. The reality is limited time before the Super Bowl and the logistics of trying to replay a portion of the NFC Championship Game nearly, if not at all, impossible.

The result of the game has cast a pall over the NFL and its signature event, the Super Bowl. If not for the blown call, the Saints did what they needed to do to go to secure the win. Many now see the Rams as an illegitimate contender. The controversy has everyone from Saints owner Gayle Benson and Payton to media and fans asking for changes to be made in officiating and replay to ensure a blown call doesn’t impact the outcome of such a crucial game ever again.

Unfortunately, other than the post-game call, there has been silence from the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell regarding the end of the game and the controversy surrounding it. The longer the league has refused to address the issue, the worse the PR optics become.

Some have pointed out that several members of the officiating crew live in or near Los Angeles. Others think the fix might be in to create a winner to build up LA’s fan base and fill their nearly $5 billion Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park – which will also house a 200,000-square foot space to headquarter NFL Media operations and the hundreds of employees who work for NFL Network, NFL.com, the NFL app and NFL RedZone – as the league doesn’t want to be proven wrong on relocating two teams to the city within the last two years. While I’d like to think there is nothing untoward, the league has opened itself to the wild thoughts of conspiracy theorists.

But the issue I have is mainly due to the commissioner’s previous heavy-handed actions to uphold the integrity of the game and players’ safety.

The NFL and Goodell have been up to their elbows in alligators for more than a decade as several high profile cases of former players developing behavioral changes including aggression, depression, dementia, and, even, suicide, caused by repetitive concussions – traumatic brain injury from a blow to the head that results in the brain crashing rapidly into the inner wall of the skull and resulting brain damage – have affected the popularity of the game.

In that time, the league has altered its rules and their enforcement to better ensure player safety. In 2012, the commissioner went so far as to suspend several Saints coaches and front office personnel for their connection to a so-called bounty program, including Payton, who was suspended for a full year, to show they were proactive on addressing head trauma. But after what transpired in the NFC Championship, it needs to go further, especially considering an espn.com report from this week that says the NFL is facing “an evaporating insurance market that is fundamentally altering the economics of the sport, squeezing and even killing off programs faced with higher costs and a scarcity of available coverage.”

What insurer would look at the end of Sunday’s game, the league’s silence, and lack of an ensuing fine, and say the league is doing everything they can to prevent violent head injuries?

While reviewing every potential pass interference play may be cumbersome, the default for any play that looks like a helmet-to-helmet hit should be for officials to throw a flag and review the play after, like it’s done in college football. If a foul was committed, the penalty stands. Otherwise, no harm, no foul.

Additionally, the officiating crew from that game needs their performance reviewed and if found to have made glaring mistakes that affected the outcome of the game or a players’ health (they missed a helmet-to-helmet hit earlier in the game that sidelined Saints tight end Josh Hill, too), they need to be fired or suspended to prove not only the legitimacy of the game, but their dedication to player safety, as well.

While the general rule seems to be to call the game a little bit looser in the playoffs and let the players play, there is no excuse for the no call, especially a helmet-to-helmet hit in this day of concussion-related awareness and related litigation. The league and the commissioner need to address what happened and take steps to ensure it never happens again. The impact of the outcome transcends the conference championship. It affects legacies, income opportunities - earned and missed, and the overall opinion on the league.

While Payton said the Saints and their fans may never get over this call, the truth is over our city’s 300 years, New Orleanians have proven to be resilient.

Fire destroyed the city. We rebuilt.

Yellow Fever ravaged its citizens. We repopulated.

Hurricane inundates 80 percent of the city with water. We rebuilt and repopulated.

This is a minor affliction, by comparison.

It hurts because we love our team. And the truth is, the NFL wishes it could be so lucky as to have other fan bases love and support their team like New Orleans loves and supports the Saints. It will be an interesting offseason for the team, but it will be back. And the Who Dat? Nation will be right there to blow the roof off of the Superdome when it does. The beginning of the 2019 season – the NFL’s centennial – can’t get here soon enough. The New Orleans Saints have something to prove.  

 

 

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Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he's not writing, he's avid about music, the outdoors and Saints, Ole Miss & Chelsea football. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, two girls and three Labradors. In addition reporting on New Orleans sports, he is looking forward to Biz’s assignment to cover the Mint 400, “The Great American Off-Road Race.”

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