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A Blown Call Crushed the Saints, Sent the Rams to the Super Bowl, and Exposed the NFL’s Officiating Crisis

The furor over the missed pass-interference penalty in Sunday’s NFC championship game is the rare NFL story in which everyone is in agreement. The fallout will affect the legacies of several players and coaches, and it shines a light on a problem the league has been negligent in addressing for far too long.

Sean Payton frowning and Sean McVay smiling as their players collide in a play with apparent pass interference Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

There are so few things that everyone agrees upon, but here is one: The Los Angeles Rams committed pass interference. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he doesn’t know whether there’s been a more obvious case than in the Rams’ overtime win in the NFC championship game Sunday. The intended recipient of Drew Brees’s pass, Tommylee Lewis, said he got thumped before he could even reach back to get the ball. Teams and coaches cry pass interference all the time, but what was unusual about this instance is who agreed: Nickell Robey-Coleman, the Rams defensive back who was defending Lewis, admitted he not only committed pass interference—he “whacked his ass”—but that he did it intentionally to save a touchdown. Al Riveron, who runs NFL officiating and talked to Payton directly after the game, said the call was blown, according to the coach.

There are missed calls every week in every game, including in Sunday’s game. The media is abuzz about a blown face-mask penalty on Rams quarterback Jared Goff, so it’s clear that the officiating was horrible for both teams. But this no-call was a different type of blown call. It’s not only that everyone agreed it was wrong—the offending party said “hell yeah” when asked about it—it’s that it’s so apparent what would have happened had the flag been thrown. The no-call occurred with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter, and the Saints were on the Rams’ 13-yard line, tied 20-20, facing third-and-10. With the benefit of a first down, they could have drained the clock, kicked a chip-shot field goal to take the lead, and left the Rams with little time to march down the field to force overtime.

Payton said, “That was a Super Bowl call,” to the officials after the play on Lewis. He was right, but the call had even bigger consequences than that. It will probably change the course of NFL history, and not just because it will alter the legacies of so many of the parties involved, but because it will be an absolute game-changer for referees. People will probably lose their jobs, and the NFL will likely overhaul its replay system. We’ll think about Brees and Payton much differently without an opportunity for them to win a second Super Bowl. We’ll also view Jared Goff and Rams head coach Sean McVay vastly differently with a Super Bowl appearance at their young ages.

Let’s assume that this was Payton and Brees’s last, best chance for a Super Bowl, in a year in which they, like the Rams, went all in. The Saints don’t have a first-round pick this year after trading up in last year’s draft to select pass rusher Marcus Davenport. Some of New Orleans’s great draft picks in recent years, such as receiver Michael Thomas, are due for extensions, perhaps as early as this spring. But all of these factors are minor compared with the fact Brees will be 41 during next year’s Super Bowl. We don’t know how quarterbacks age anymore—the curve has changed significantly—but it’s clear that aging past 40 is not a good thing. Goff, who struggled at times this season, will start in a Super Bowl having played the fewest number of seasons of any quarterback drafted no. 1 overall. He is due for an extension in the next year and will likely be perceived by members of the media as one of the game’s elite quarterbacks. That might not be the case had the Saints won the conference championship game.

The furor over this specific call will eventually subside nationally, though it will become a rallying cry in New Orleans forever, similar to “Brett Hull was in the crease,” or “Myles Jack wasn’t down” for the Gulf Coast. The outrage will continue to resonate in league offices too. The NFL’s officiating needs fixing, and Sunday’s controversy is an opportunity to help the league get where it needs to be, even though that won’t make Brees feel any better.

Reports from Sunday night suggested that the league was going to admit it screwed up, but that it eventually decided against issuing a statement. A public statement won’t change anything. There is no scenario in which the non-call would have been justified, so the league doesn’t have to admit anything. The world saw it. If you buy a car and it blows up as soon as you drive off the lot, you don’t need to hear “Boy, wow, this mistake is on us” from the company that made the car. It is pretty clear.

There is no grand conspiracy at work. The NFL is on track to make $25 billion in annual revenue in about a decade. If the league were fixing games and risking billions of dollars to help some teams at the expense of others, I assure you it would be less obvious. NFL officials would probably also do it in favor of more popular teams like the Cowboys, Steelers, and Packers, none of which have made the Super Bowl since the start of this decade. So no, there’s no conspiracy. The referees are just bad. The Ringer’s brilliant social team made a video of a WWE ref (Kurt Angle) swinging a contest in the Rams’ favor. It’s meant to be a joke: The call Sunday would have seemed unrealistically bad in the WWE. Chargers receiver Keenan Allen said there was no way the refs could be in the league next season. Saints receiver Michael Thomas tweeted a bylaw that gives the league the ability to overturn the result of the game or impose penalties after “unfair acts,” an idea that is not being seriously considered by, well, anyone.

The NFL has guaranteed itself an offseason that will feature talk of an officiating crisis. ProFootballTalk called it the league’s “worst nightmare.” After the league meetings in March (Payton is on the competition committee), we will learn how much the NFL hates the current state of affairs.

The fallout is already starting. Sources told Peter King that Riveron’s job is in jeopardy and that he “can’t survive this.” King wondered whether the side judge and down judge who missed the call will be fired. Remember, the NFL took the rare step of dismissing official Hugo Cruz earlier this season after a series of mistakes. We are about to find out if it intends to keep taking jobs away from officials who blow calls.

I’ve done a fair share of reporting on refereeing and I’ve been surprised by how outdated a lot of their methods are. They don’t have as many mechanisms for monitoring illegal hits as they should. When I profiled Fox officiating analysts Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino earlier this season, neither of them thought officials were worse than they’ve been in the past, but that structural problems affect their calls. Blandino thinks there are too many exceptions that overcomplicate the rule book. Pereira believes that officials need more practice repetitions. I’ve heard from other referees that the game might just be getting too fast for humans to call it correctly every single time. But none of these points address the scariest problem for the NFL: These structural problems did not apply to this particular call. The refs made a massive mistake, one that was obvious to everyone watching the game, during one of the highest-rated television windows of year. Even if the NFL had addressed all its structural problems, it couldn’t have fixed this.

After the game, referee Bill Vinovich responded to questions about the play. His answer was nearly as offensive as the no-call itself: He said he hadn’t seen the play. The joke, of course, is that none of the officials saw the penalty. The serious point is that Vinovich is either not telling the truth or cares so little about his job that he didn’t seek out a replay the moment the game ended. (Or, you know, he could have seen it when any of the massive video boards in the stadium showed it.)

The end result is that the NFL will probably change the rules so that all plays, including missed penalties, become reviewable. Payton and Bill Belichick have been asking for this for years and, like with most matters, they are right.

Everything should be reviewable, but not everything should have to go to review. A safety hatch to prevent such egregious human error would be ideal—the Saints would be in the Super Bowl if such a thing existed—but one of the highest-graded referees in the league stared straight at a player who was trying to commit pass interference and kept the flag in his pocket.

I’ve been around a lot of losing teams, and I don’t remember a locker room as quiet as the Saints’ was Sunday. The players didn’t appear to be angry, just helpless.

Lewis, the receiver who was, as Robey-Coleman said, “whacked” Sunday, bounced up after the contact wondering which penalty was coming—a helmet-to-helmet hit or pass interference. “Either one,” he said. Of course, neither was coming. The refs never said anything to him on the field.

On the streets of New Orleans, I saw a lot of people crying. I do not see that often, even after Super Bowls. Saints fans were calling into the postgame show proposing legal action against the league.

The Rams should be commended: The Superdome is a ludicrously loud stadium where communication is near impossible. I could barely speak to my neighbor in the press box, and we weren’t trying to change a play at the line of scrimmage. But the next two weeks will feature a lot of talk about the call that wasn’t. Not just because it sent the Rams to Atlanta, but because it will tell us what the league intends to do about its officiating.

Legacies changed Sunday. Brees, after his Saints lost in the so-called Minneapolis Miracle in last year’s divisional round, may not be able to contend for a Super Bowl next season, when he’s 41 years old. McVay strengthened his reputation, and several NFL owners breathed a sigh of relief over their decisions to hire people on the basis of knowing McVay. The legacy of NFL referees shifted too. The call will almost certainly usher in a new era, one with more technology and options designed as a fail-safe for egregious calls like this. But that won’t change what I saw in New Orleans. A news outlet showed that a causeway traffic sign read, “WE WERE ROBBED.” You get the feeling that Saints fans are going to say that forever.

An earlier version of this piece gave the incorrect score at the time of the officials’ non-call on the Rams’ Nickell-Robey-Coleman; it was 20-20, and not 23-20 Saints.