For all the blunders that NFL officiating has provided in recent years, none was more notorious and inexcusable than the one that occurred three years ago today, in New Orleans. Making matters worse was the clumsy and ineffective way in which the NFL handled the aftermath of a bad call that sent the wrong team to the Super Bowl.
The NFC Championship was tied at 20. The fourth-quarter clock showed one minute, 49 seconds. The Saints had the ball on the Rams’ 13, facing third and 10.
Just before the snap, cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman realized he was badly out of position. He sprinted across the field to pick up his man, and he wiped out New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis just before the pass from Drew Brees arrived.
The officials on the field failed to call defensive pass interference. The Saints settled for a field goal, the Rams scored a field goal of their own before the end of regulation, and the Rams won in overtime.
As we argued then, the league office should have used its real-time replay-review pipeline to instruct the on-field officials to drop the flag. Yes, it would have violated internal procedures and protocols. It also would have avoided a shitstorm that tarnished Super Bowl LIII.
If then-V.P. of officiating Al Riveron had instructed referee Bill Vinovich to drop a flag, who would have cared? Even if someone had eventually admitted to the fact that the pipeline was employed in a way that it shouldn’t have been used, who would have been upset by that? Pass interference happened. Pass interference should have been called.
The league later overreacted to the situation, making all forms of pass interference calls and non-calls subject to replay review for 2019. Riveron employed a Magic 8 Ball standard, hopping around from hypertechnical to commonsensical to eventually settling on an approach that overturned only the most egregious failures. The league decided after only one season to pull the plug on the process, reverting to the exact same rules that were in place for the ill-fated postseason game between the Rams and Saints.
The next time something like this happens, will 345 Park Avenue exercise its prerogative to tell the referee to drop a flag? Maybe.
The strongest clue arguably comes from the handling of the erroneous whistle in the Raiders-Bengals playoff game. The league grossly misapplied the rule regarding a whistle blown before the completion of a play — and the league then blatantly lied about it, claiming that the whistle came after, not before, Cincinnati receiver Tyler Boyd caught a pass in the end zone.
But what if the league had applied the rulebook as written? The touchdown would not have counted, and the play would have happened again. If the Bengals didn’t score a touchdown, and if they would have gone on to lose, the blowback from the botched whistle would have been much stronger than the criticism from the league’s blatant and deliberate failure to apply the rules as written, and then to weave a tangled web regarding the notion that the whistle came after the catch.
The play didn’t get a much criticism as it should have, because the erroneous whistle changed nothing. With or without it, the Bengals scored a touchdown. Perhaps this shows that, in tough spots, the league is willing to consider which mistake will cause less of a problem.
Three years ago, the league made the wrong choice. Five days ago, the league made the right one. Even if it didn’t happen deliberately, the takeaway should be that, when in similar predicaments in the future, always choose the path that causes less of a commotion.