Making a mistake is part of being human. We do it all the time. From misspellings in our word documents, falling on a patch of ice or dashing that morning cup of java in the car, accidents happen. We try to move on from them having learned a lesson. That enlightened approach will do little good to the New Orleans Saints, who were on the bad end of a terrible no-call last Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
For context, it was third and 10 within the Rams’ 20, with the Saints driving to not only run out the clock, but likely score a touchdown to make it a two-possession game. When the ball was snapped, Saints’ QB Drew Brees threw a spiral that would make any QB blush to the right side boundary. His intended target was WR Tommy Lee Lewis, who turned to the ball as it floated towards him. Noticing Lewis coming open in his zone, Rams’ CB Nickell Robey-Coleman dashed towards the receiver as he turned around. Without looking back to spot where the ball was in the air, the corner figured to play the man instead of the ball. The next moment will live as an epic blunder of sizeable proportions. Both players collided into each other, with Lewis taking the brunt of the hit, somersaulting into a heap on the ground as the ball fell to the turf.
There was no flag.
As you can imagine, with the Mercedes Superdome serving as the setting for the contest, everyone without Rams’ paraphernalia or a black and white striped shirt on was visibly upset. Saints’ head coach Sean Payton chewed out the sideline judge for the blown call, visibly frustrated at what should have been a game-sealing decision in New Orleans’ favor. Fans sporting the golden fleur-de-lis felt dejected as a promising drive came to an abrupt halt. Instead, the Saints settled for a field goal, leaving the Superdome deflated and the visiting team invigorated. If the refs had thrown the flag, indicating a penalty on the previous play, New Orleans would’ve been able to bleed out more of the clock and have a chance to score a TD as opposed to a field goal.
Forgotten in all this outrage was the fact that the Saints’ defense could have stopped the Rams from driving down the field to kick a game-tying field goal. New Orleans even got the ball at the start of overtime with a chance to win the game on their first offensive possession. However, Drew Brees was hit and threw a jump ball that was intercepted by Rams’ DB John Jenkins III. A few minutes later, LA K Greg Zuerlein punched the team’s ticket to Super Bowl LIII with a 57-yard field goal to seal the game.
While we understand people make mistakes, not everyone is so understanding. The crew who officiated the NFC championship game will be under siege for some time to come.
The Saints can protest the missed call to the league office all they want. The bottom line is that it will be the LA Rams representing the NFC instead of them. Once again, the NFL has managed to find another way to open itself up to criticism. Once the champagne in the visiting locker room was all poured and the buses left the stadium, the call that wasn’t still reigned as the headline in a game. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for those on the losing end, with the only saving grace for the league being that the Super Bowl will be taking place two weeks from that infamous day.
The obvious question — outside of replaying the game or overturning the call — is how the league will prevent another catastrophe such as this from occurring ever again. So far, we’ve heard that the league will be open to challenging pass interference penalties, something the CFL instituted a couple seasons ago. The other possibility would be to provide coaches with another challenge to the two the they have already. Either scenario points out that the league should possibly look at ironing out the kinks that come with an error in judgement.
These referees don’t have the luxury of slow-motion replays or a handheld device to see whether a catch was truly a catch, or if a runner stepped out of bounds on their way into the endzone. If the whole concept is to uphold the spirit and letter of the law for a game, then there’s nothing wrong with lending a hand to those who are the most exposed to criticism on a play-by-play basis. One side feeling that they didn’t receive fair treatment from an officiating crew is not new to any sporting event. Before a head coach — or player — shoulders the blame of a failed play, it’ll be the umpire, referee or official that draws the ire of a frustrated fan base. “They obviously have money on this one, that’s why they’re not giving us any calls.” “I swear the league has it in for us.” These comments sound comical, but if you’ve ever attended or watched an event with the sporting fanatic in your social circle, you’ll know that this is just another day in the life.
As previously mentioned, other leagues have taken steps to make sure that the sport is as transparent as possible. It’s the reason why you’ll hear the voice of a retired referer chiming in with his opinion on a controversial play. The NBA’s officiating body has become more active on social media (@OfficialNBARefs) after LeBron James lamented a call on social media. You just can’t win when you put on those stripes. There’s this noble idea that officials are human, too — a quality that we tend to push to the background when anger rushes to our faces and frustration is not provided a suitable outlet.
I don’t think anyone has given serious consideration to disposing of officiating crews altogether. Opting for some version of a futuristic crew that would be equal parts The Jetsons and Harry Potter just won’t work in practice. Sport cannot solely rely on machinery. Officials are a necessary fixture of sport, keepers of an expansive rulebook that not many on this planet can decipher and implement in a sensible fashion. With arenas and stadiums capable of morphing into a highly-charged atmosphere at a moment’s notice, one of the greatest skills showcased by the officials between whistles may be their ability to remain impartial with an entire building attempting to influence their decision making. Coincidentally, those crews also serve as a scapegoat. One that sport has no plans of replacing at this point of time. Who is going to talk down an irate coach? Have we found anyone that can keep their composure with a gym full of fans reigning boos as the teams enter and leave the dressing room?
Until we manufacture some other life forms that can deal with each of the situations and a whole host of other issues that come along with life during a given play, we’re all stuck with these mistake-prone humans that tend to get more right than they do wrong.