No sooner had the kick-in-the-gut-loss of the NFC championship game ended for the New Orleans Saints than the NFL was on the phone to Coach Sean Payton, ringing him up to talk about what everyone else was discussing: officiating.
It wasn’t so much the game or the performances that had people talking, and that’s a horrible shame in one of the three biggest games of the NFL’s season. Instead, one team is left with not just a loss but the kind that will leave a hole in the pit of the stomach for some time to come.
Pro Football Talk reported, citing an unnamed source, that the NFL would publicly admit that the no-call was an error. The NFL admitted its error to the Saints, a person familiar with the situation told The Washington Post’s Mark Maske, as Payton said after the game. Al Riveron, the league’s senior vice president of officiating, spoke to Payton and told him that pass interference should have been called. The play also could have been whistled for the helmet-to-helmet hit.
“They blew the call,” Payton told reporters, just as he told officials on the field. “It’s a game-changing call — third down with 1:45 left. A tough one to swallow. My problem with it is, if we’re playing pickup football in the backyard, it was as obvious a call. How two guys can look at that and come up with their decision — we’ll probably never get over it. The truth is — some of these losses — one like that — it’s too bad.”
He wasn’t the only one who was reeling. Fans were crushed. “At least,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards tweeted, “the refs can’t take away Mardi Gras.”
Even a recent Los Angeles transplant couldn’t believe it. “Hate to see that happen in such a great game!” the Lakers' LeBron James tweeted.
Here’s what happened and how the officials saw it: Wide receiver Tommylee Lewis went up for a Drew Brees pass, and Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman knocked him to the ground before the ball arrived. It was a clear case of pass interference, and it was called that way by Fox Sports' Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino, former NFL officiating heads, and by Troy Aikman. Referee Bill Vinovich and his crew kept flags firmly planted in pockets.
If pass interference had been called, the Saints would have had first and goal at the 6 with 1:45 left and the Rams holding one timeout. Without the call, it was fourth and 10 at the 13, and the Saints settled for a field goal and a 23-20 lead with 1:41 left.
It was, as ESPN’s Ryan Clark put it, clear that even Robey-Coleman knew what he had done. “When your arms get like this — [like a T-Rex] — you know you did something wrong,” he said as he watched video of Robey-Coleman’s reaction.
Even Robey-Coleman thought he’d committed pass interference. “I thought it was for a split-second,” he told reporters, “but when I got up, he said, ‘Incomplete,’ and I was just like, ‘Thank you.’ "
The result left Payton and Brees moist-eyed as they addressed the media, and Brees used the same phrase as his coach — “tough to swallow” — perhaps because there wasn’t much else to say, even for one of the game’s elder statesmen.
“Plenty of times throughout the season, there’s calls that go against you, or go for you, or they miss or they didn’t,” Brees said, “but obviously, in a situation like that, where it seemed like everybody in the world saw it, it’s tough. It’s tough.”
So far, there hasn’t been much of an explanation from the NFL or from Al Riveron, who is in charge of officials. Saints observers were clearly clamoring for it. Vinovich, according to Nola.com’s Amie Just, said he had not seen the play and had not reviewed the play, which is not reviewable in New York. “It’s a judgment call by the official,” he said.
Robey-Coleman admitted that he hadn’t looked back at the ball on the play and that he was trying to save a touchdown.
“I didn’t play the ball. If I’d played the ball, then it would have been a different story,” he said. “I just went straight to him, and when I saw his hands go up and I hit him, I heard the crowd crazy, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, this is a flag.’ Then I got up, and he said, ‘Incomplete.’ ”
Lewis asked reporters, “Did y’all think it was a bad call?” When many reporters nodded, he replied, “Okay, then.”
“Saint fans, I’m sorry, but it is what it is,” Robey-Coleman said with a smile that indicated he knew how close he came to being the Rams' goat. “You heard what the ref said. The ref said it was incomplete. Respect the call.”
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