In this extraordinary time, when technology takes us places man cannot imagine or see, the lack of a industrial remedy may have cost the New Orleans Saints the Super Bowl when a play a referee did not see led to a call no one could imagine.
And for as long as the play football in New Orleans, certainly for as long as Sean Payton coaches the Saints, the organization and its fans will also wonder how a penalty that was not called impacted their 26-23 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game.
“For a call like that not to be made, man, it’s just hard to swallow. And then to get a phone call …” said Payton. “We spoke initially, then I called to follow up. And the first thing [head of officials Alberto Riveron] said when I got on the phone — ‘We messed it up.’
“Listen, it’s a hard job for those guys because it’s happening fast. But I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call that — here it is, the NFC Championship Game. So, it’s a tough one to swallow.”
But everyone who saw the play unfold immediately gulped.
With the game tied 20-20, 1:45 to play in the game and the Saints sitting thrd-and-10 from the Rams 13, Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman turned New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis in a crash-test dummy while contesting for a Drew Brees pass. Without trying to locate the flight of the ball, Coleman detonated on Lewis so hard it sent him backward into turf.
Lewis obviously had no chance to catch the ball after being so impeded and everyone who saw the play figured a pass interference call was coming. In fact, it seemed there had never been so obvious a case of pass interference in the game’s history. Robey-Coleman broke every rule in the book.
The flag did not come. The play was ruled an incomplete pass.
The Saints went nuts, asking for the officials to reconsider and overturn the call which would have provided a first down and a renewed chance to score the game-winning touchdown.
After the game, a pool reporter was sent to get a reaction form the game’s referee, Bill Vinovich. Ironically, last week a rabid Rams fan had tried to build interest in a petition asking for Vinovich to be removed from the game because the Rams were 0-8 when he was working with a disproportionate amount of penalty calls against them.
Pool reporter: “What was the reason that there was no penalty flag called on the Drew Brees pass to Tommylee Lewis?”
Vinovich: “It was a judgment call by the covering official. I personally have not seen the play.”
Reporter: “Did the timing in the game have any impact on the no-call there?”
Vinovich: “Absolutely not.”
But in a sport that provides instant replay to resolve conflicts about possession, there is no provision for officials to look at video to confirm or overturn calls made about penalties.
“It was simple. They blew the call,” said Payton, who was trying to get the team to its first Super Bowl since 2009. “They (the NFL) said it should never have not been a call. They said not only was it interference, it (the collision) helmet-to-helmet. They just couldn’t believe it.”
So egregious was the non-call that even the perpetrator said he was looking for the flag. But the official nearest to play told him the pass had been tipped in flight, which, if true, would have eliminated the chance of pass interference being called.
“I thought it was for a split-second; but the ref got up – when I got up, he said, ‘Incomplete,’ so I just was like, ‘Thank you,'” said Robey-Coleman. “I didn’t look back at the ball. I didn’t play the ball. If I had played the ball, then it would’ve been a different story. … And then the ref said, like, it looked it was a tip. Like, it was, like, tipped. So I was like, ‘OK, cool.'”
The ball was not tipped. The official blew he call. And it blew the collective minds of NFL fans from Augusta to Anchorage.
The non-call did not cost the Saints possession, but it forced them to settle for a field goal to take a 23-20 lead instead of killing more time off the clock first.
Now here is where you lose sympathy for New Orleans: It would have been enough to win had its defense denied Los Angeles the chance to tie the game at the end of regulation. And it may have won in overtime had an interception of Brees not led to Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning, 57-yard goal.
“So what do you do? You get back up, and you got to work,” said Payton. “This will be a tough one for these players, for the coaches. … But it happened, though, so we can’t dwell on it. And we’ll probably never get over it.”
Brees, 40, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, said after the game he was planning to return and make another run at the Super Bowl.
“My mind’s not even there right now. So this is all pretty fresh. But [I’m] just going to take a few days to kind of let it all settle in, talk with my teammates and my coaches. But I plan on being here next year.”
Meanwhile, NFL owners and their competition committee may be forced to evaluate its replay system, perhaps adding the contingency to allow coaches to also challenge pass interference calls.
“There’s too much at stake,” said Payton.
“We all want to get it right, right. We’ve got the technology where we can – we’ve got plenty of technology to speed things up. Look, I’m on the competition committee so hopefully that provides a voice. Man, I hope no other team has to lose a game like the way we lost today, though.”
Perhaps the most interesting point of view about it all was offered after the game by Rams defensive lineman. He was asked what he’d remember most about the game.
“The no-call on that pass interference, “ he said. “That’s going to be the biggest one. They’re letting us play it out. This is playoff football, so appreciate the refs not trying to make a name for themselves and call the game. But they definitely gave us one on that one.”