The historically dreadful officiating gaffe at the end of the NFC championship game has led to some calls, including by New Orleans Saints star wide receiver Michael Thomas, for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to intervene and overturn the result of the game to give the Saints another chance to right that wrong, beat the Los Angeles Rams and advance to the Super Bowl.
It’s pretty clear at this point that it’s not going to happen and that it was never going to happen. And, upon inspection of the NFL rule book, it’s highly debatable whether Goodell actually has the authority to make it happen.
The rule book empowers the commissioner to overturn the result of a game for what it calls an “extraordinarily unfair” act. However, the same section of the rule book says that “judgmental errors … by game officials” do not qualify.
That didn’t stop Thomas from taking to Twitter to cite Rule 17 Section 2 Article 3, which gives Goodell the authority to reverse a game result or order a game to be replayed. And it didn’t stop Thomas from following up by writing on Twitter: “Hey Roger pick up the phone.”
Thomas, the Saints and their fans remain angry and despondent about how events unfolded at the end of regulation in their 26-23 overtime loss Sunday to the Rams at the Superdome. The game was tied at 20 in the final two minutes when Rams defender Nickell Robey-Coleman bowled over Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis before a pass by quarterback Drew Brees arrived.
But officials failed to call what amounted to a blatant pass interference penalty. Robey-Coleman also got away with an illegal hit on Lewis for helmet-to-helmet contact with a defenseless receiver. Instead of having a first down that would have enabled them to score a touchdown or run down the clock before kicking a field goal, the Saints kicked an immediate field goal. That gave the Rams time to kick a tying field goal in regulation, and they won on an overtime field goal after Brees threw an interception.
The NFL has acknowledged the officiating error. Al Riveron, the league’s senior vice president of officiating, told Saints Coach Sean Payton, a member of the NFL’s rulemaking competition committee, after the game that pass interference should have been called.
That has led Thomas and others to turn to Rule 17 Section 2 of the rule book, which is titled “Extraordinarily Unfair Acts.”
In Article 3 of that section, the rule book says: “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.”
But the rule book also says right above that in Article 2: “The Commissioner will not apply authority in cases of complaints by clubs concerning judgmental errors or routine errors of omission by game officials. Games involving such complaints will continue to stand as complete.”
So Thomas and the Saints, it appears, always were out of luck.
As ridiculously terrible as Sunday’s non-call was, bad calls are part of the normal course of events in a game. This rule seems designed for something other than that, such as, say, a fan taking the field to interfere with a play.
“The Commissioner has the sole authority to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary and/or corrective measures if any club action, non-participant interference, or calamity occurs in an NFL game which the Commissioner deems so extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football that such action has a major effect on the result of the game,” the rule book says in Article 1 of that section.
NFL leaders and competition committee members plan to give serious consideration this offseason to making pass interference reviewable by instant replay. Sunday’s play was not reviewable, and the competition committee long has opposed making pass interference and other judgment calls by the on-field officials subject to replay. But Sunday’s miscarriage of on-field justice perhaps could change some minds. Any such rule change would have to be approved by at least 24 of the 32 teams and would take effect next season.
Too late to help the Saints.
“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,” Saints owner Gayle Benson said in the written statement she released Monday. “It is a disservice to our coaches, players, employees and, most importantly, the fans who make our game possible. The NFL must always commit to providing the most basic of expectations — fairness and integrity.”
But the Saints and their fans will simply have to live with this. The Rams are headed to the Super Bowl, and that’s not going to change.