clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How can the NFL make sure the Saints officiating mess doesn’t happen again?

The NFL can consider a rule change — but it really just needs its officials to be better.

NFL: NFC Championship Game-Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints should probably be preparing for a Super Bowl 53 matchup against the New England Patriots. Instead, it’s the Los Angeles Rams who won the NFC Championship, largely due to blatant pass interference that was somehow missed by officials.

With 1:49 left in a 20-20 game, Drew Brees threw a pass to Tommylee Lewis up the right sideline, but the receiver was blasted out of bounds by Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman before the ball arrived.

Everyone — including the Rams — knew it should’ve been pass interference. The Saints should’ve been set up with a first down at about the 6-yard line. It would’ve given them the chance to run out the majority of the remaining clock to set up a chip shot for Wil Lutz to win the game.

But the Saints had to kick their field goal early and the Rams got the ball back with 1:41 left. They drove 45 yards and set up a game-tying 48-yard field goal for Greg Zuerlein instead. He made that and a 57-yard field goal in overtime to send the Rams to the Super Bowl.

So, New Orleans is pissed, and rightfully so. On Monday, Saints owner Gayle Benson released a statement saying she’ll push for changes to prevent a similar thing never happening again.

“No team should ever be denied the opportunity to reach the title game (or simply win a game) based on the actions, or inactions, of those charged with creating a fair and equitable playing field,” part of Benson’s statement reads. “As is clear to all who watched the game, it is undeniable that our team and fans were unfairly deprived of that opportunity yesterday. I have been in touch with the NFL regarding yesterday’s events and will aggressively pursue changes in NFL policies to ensure no team and fan base is ever put in a similar position again.”

Despite public silence from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — something that has irked Saints tight end Benjamin Watson — he has privately discussed the incident with Benson:

It wasn’t until 10 days after the game that Goodell finally spoke publicly about the call.

But what will the NFL do now to correct the problem? Maybe nothing.

The Saints aren’t going to get their emergency rematch

In the early hours of Monday morning, Saints receiver Michael Thomas asked his Twitter followers to take a peek at a section buried near the bottom of the NFL rulebook:

That article in the rulebook reads as follows (emphasis mine):


The Commissioner’s powers under this Section 2 include the imposition of monetary fines and draft-choice forfeitures, suspension of persons involved in unfair acts, and, if appropriate, the reversal of a game’s result or the rescheduling of a game, either from the beginning or from the point at which the extraordinary act occurred. In the event of rescheduling a game, the Commissioner will be guided by the procedures specified in 17-1-5–11, above. In all cases, the Commissioner will conduct a full investigation, including the opportunity for hearings, use of game video, and any other procedure the Commissioner deems appropriate.

Saints fans have clung to that piece of desperation too with hundreds of thousands signing a petition appealing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to have the game replayed.

It won’t happen. While Goodell can step in, send both teams back to the Superdome and have them replay the final couple minutes of the game — he won’t. That’d be a decision so unprecedented that it’d take much more than a missed call to qualify as an act “extraordinary” enough to have part of the game redone.

It took over a week, but Goodell finally confirmed that he never even considered it.

Teams get screwed all the time. Just last year the Jacksonville Jaguars were probably robbed of a spot in the Super Bowl when linebacker Myles Jack was incorrectly ruled down by contact after recovering a fumble in the AFC Championship against the Patriots.

Bu what the NFL may be able to do is make sure the situation that cost the Saints doesn’t happen again in the future.

The NFL could make pass interference a reviewable play

It didn’t take long for the Washington Post to report Monday that the NFL is already considering a possible rule change that would’ve made the hit by Robey-Coleman reviewable:

“It will be discussed at length along with additional fouls that coaches feel should be subject to review,” one person familiar with the league’s inner workings said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing public furor over the botched call in New Orleans.

A high-ranking official with one NFL team confirmed that making pass interference reviewable will be considered, adding: “And there will be discussion on [replay] review of calls and non-calls.”

Saints coach Sean Payton — who was obviously irate about the missed call and immediately called the league office — is a member of the NFL Competition Committee.

Payton has been a proponent for making pass interference a reviewable play for some time now. Here are some quotes from Payton after a game in October 2016 when safety Kenny Vaccaro was called for a controversial pass interference penalty against the Panthers. Via ESPN:

“That specific call is so critical to get right,” said Payton, who said the idea has been brought up and discussed by “a number of clubs” in recent years to no avail.

“And for good reason,” Payton said Monday. “I think the competition committee needs to spend a lot more time thinking about [it].”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick agrees and has proposed for years that all plays be deemed reviewable. Here he is in 2014, via USA Today:

“We had a situation this year where we added another exception to the replay rule because of a play that came up during the season, and it seems like that’s kind of the way it goes — something happens, and then, we have something else to challenge or make another play challengeable that wasn’t in the past, and we’re just going to keep adding to that. I’d just like to clean it up and have a coach have two challenges, and if he gets them right, he gets a third, and that’s it. He can use it on whatever play he wants.”

For now, pass interference falls under the “judgment call” definition, which makes it non-reviewable. Plays that have clear definitions can be broken down with instant replay. For example: Did a player get two feet down for a reception? Did a player fumble before or after their knee was down? Did a player cross the goal line with the ball or come up just short?

Pass interference is a little more ambiguous and requires an official to decide if the violation, per the rulebook, “significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball.”

But replay could certainly help that judgment, right? Especially when it’s as blatantly obvious as Robey-Coleman’s hit on Lewisa hit that earned Robey-Coleman a $26K fine.

In the aftermath of that play, the league is willing to consider making these judgment calls reviewable, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter — though those reviews could come with a loss of yards or a clock runoff if the challenging team is overruled and the call on the field stands. Robey-Coleman’s hit will be a focal point of the rules committee’s meeting this spring.

It makes sense. The point of instant replay is to get the calls right on the field and this was a clear case of where it could have fixed things.

There’s a downside to changing the replay rules, though

If the NFL makes pass interference a reviewable play, it’d probably make sense to make all penalties reviewable, right? Any kind of penalty can be crucial. Tom Brady got an iffy roughing the passer penalty that Patrick Mahomes didn’t. Should that have been reviewed too? Maybe.

If the league opens those flood gates in the way Belichick wants, expect way more replay reviews.

The rules allow each team to challenge twice per game and a third time if the first two challenges resulted in overturned plays. But those challenges are still used sparingly.

Payton challenged seven plays during the regular season and won three. No coach in the NFL challenge more than eight times. That means even the most aggressive coaches only challenged once every other game.

But given the chance to look at penalties with replay, those challenge averages could skyrocket. You think the NFL’s three-and-a-half hour games are long now? Wait until there’s double or triple the replay reviews.

And even if all penalties aren’t reviewable — just making pass interference reviewable would add to that game length. There were over 3,000 penalties called in 2018 and 320 were pass interference. That’s a lot of freshly reviewable plays.

All that said, the Saints could’ve helped themselves by avoiding that situation

New Orleans was definitely screwed by the non-call, but it’s not the only reason the Saints lost. The Rams had 378 yards of total offense. The Saints had just 290 — one of their worst offensive showings of the year.

When they got the first down at the two-minute warning deep in Rams territory, the Saints decided to pass on first and third down instead of run to waste clock and flush out Los Angeles’ remaining timeouts. Both passes were incomplete — even if the latter should’ve been a penalty — and set up the Rams with a great chance to tie.

And when the Rams did tie, the game went to overtime and the Saints got the ball first. But instead of scoring like the Patriots did to win the AFC Championship, Brees lobbed up an interception when he was drilled by Rams pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr.

The Saints had a poor offensive showing and still had their chances to win. The officials hurt them, but they also blew it on their own.

Maybe the NFL will take reactive measures to avoid the backlash they’re currently facing for an egregious miss. But the fact of the matter remains that it really doesn’t have to — it just needs officials to be better.