NEW ORLEANS — In 2016, the New Orleans Saints had missed the postseason three years running. When they got back the following season, they rallied from 0-2 to win the division with an 11-5 season before the Minneapolis Miracle tore their still-beating hearts out.
Was Sunday’s loss in the NFC championship game to the Los Angeles Rams at the Superdome the low point? Or better stated: Was this the worst non-call in a playoff setting of this magnitude?
What has to hurt most for the Saints was the fact that — blown chances elsewhere in the game notwithstanding — they found out after the game that an egregious call that went against them would be verified as certifiably bad. Not by the referees who called it. But by the league itself.
Most of neutral football-watching America was shocked at the lack of a pass-interference call (or at the very least a helmet-to-helmet call) against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman for his hit on Saints wide receiver Tommy Lee Lewis with 1:49 remaining in a 20-20 game.
Saints head coach Sean Payton wasn’t about to mince words in what had to be one of his toughest losses ever — especially after NFL head of officiating Al Riveron actually called Payton after the game to confirm that either of the calls, PI or helmet to helmet, could have and should have been enforced on the play.
“They blew the call,” Payton said. “There were a lot of opportunities, but that call makes it first-and-10, and we’d only need three plays. It was a game-changing call.”
Payton later added, “I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call.”
It was a strangely poor day for referee Bill Vinovich and his crew, which called very few penalties in the game (10 total, seven for the Rams). There also was a missed face-mask call against Rams QB Jared Goff that could have been called but wasn’t. But neither that nor the 14-yard pass interference call that benefitted the Saints in overtime were enough to comfort Payton, Drew Brees or anyone else in the New Orleans locker room after a second straight season came crashing down with postseason horror.
“That’s tough to swallow,” Brees said.
After the game, Vinovich told a pool reporter that it was a “judgment call by the covering official” and that Vinovich himself hadn’t seen the play at the time. Asked if the timing of the game — less than two minutes left in a thriller — had anything to do with the side judge swallowing his flag there, and Vinovich stood up for his own.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
But that was exactly on the mind of Saints DE Cameron Jordan, whose words had a fun little double meaning to them.
“I don’t know what he saw, maybe he doesn’t know what he saw,” Jordan said. “Maybe the lights were too bright for him to see.”
Of course, Rams head coach Sean McVay naturally had a different view of the officiating crew’s effort during the game.
“The one thing I respect about the refs today is they let the guys compete and they let the guys play,” he said. McVay said Nickell-Robey made a “nice play” and a “competitive play” and clearly felt fine with how that one went down.
To the majority of the Saints’ players’ credit, and even Payton, they said to a man that they missed opportunities earlier in the game that they should have capitalized on. That’s for sure true: The Saints came up with only six points on their first two possessions despite landing in the red zone both times.
They stretched it to 13-0, but it took a bold demonstration by Payton to appear to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Los Angeles 10-yard line. Rams DT Michael Brockers jumped offsides, giving New Orleans first-and-goal, and Brees hit Garrett Griffin for the touchdown and the two-score lead. The last time the Saints blew a bigger lead at the Superdome was in Week 1 of the 2016 season to the Oakland Raiders.
The Saints’ defense allowed Goff to get progressively more comfortable in the game. They didn’t see a tide-shifting fake punt coming in the first half. They couldn’t stop the Rams from scoring on five of their final seven possessions.
The Saints’ offense just didn’t have its finest day at the office, building off what had been a quieter two months down the stretch on that side of the ball. Ever since the Dallas Cowboys shut them down in a 13-10 loss in Week 13, the Saints had been far more mute in the point-scoring department.
Their final seven games (postseason included) produced 10, 28, 12, 31, 14 (with many starters resting), 20 and 23 points. The seven games before that? They had averaged 38.9 points and scored no fewer than 24.
Payton admitted that
Still, it’s hard to argue what receiving the PI call would have given them. The Saints would have had first-and-goal inside the Los Angeles 7-yard line, and the Rams had only one timeout left. That means Payton could have run the clock down before a game-winning kick attempt — or scored a touchdown — with the Rams nearly helpless to stop him. Instead, Wil Lutz’s 31-yarder came with 1:45 left
That allowed the Rams ample time to go down and score to send the game in overtime, where they eventually would win. The Saints missed chances in that period, too.
But this is the NFL in a nutshell, and this play and this game have so many layers to it. It goes far deeper than Lewis running a wheel route and being hit high in an era of safety by a little-known, hyphenated nickel back. It begs the question of whether the league needs to adopt instant replay to challenge egregious errors such as these and whether there’s a way to do it without turning the NFL into one unending series of replays.
Perhaps final two minutes of the half? A coach’s challenge? A big, red button on Riveron’s desk in New York? Whatever it is, that conversation must be had. The NFL should look north to their Canadian friends for help, perhaps. After all, pass interference can be challenged in the CFL.
The last time the Saints were in the NFC championship game, the league changed the rules the following year because of the way that game unfolded. The Saints got the ball first in overtime, drove down the field on the Minnesota Vikings and scored a game-winning field goal. That can’t happen now; it’s touchdown or bust on the opening drive, otherwise both teams get to possess it.
The subsequent changes felt like a direct response to what happened on this same Superdome field almost nine years ago to the day. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Sunday’s thriller marred by a missed call be treated somewhat similarly, even with the slippery slope of how far to extend replay’s bounds.
And here’s the tasty irony of this bitter pill he’s had to swallow: Not that it changes history, but Payton serves on the NFL’s competition committee. He’s currently one of eight men in the NFL — from coaches to GMs to team presidents and even two owners — who get to control how the rules are changed going forward.
You can bet this puppy will be on the list.
“We all want to get it right, right?” Payton asked rhetorically postgame. “I mean, we have plenty of technology to speed things up. …
“Man, I hope no other team has to lose a game the way we lost that one today. We were in position. Like I said, being there on the 10-yard line … it’s a disappointment.”