After what some are calling the biggest no-call in NFL history, referees are getting a tremendous amount of backlash for failing to throw an obvious helmet-to-helmet/pass interference flag during a clutch, fourth-quarter play in the NFC Conference Championship game last Sunday.
Across the board, players, coaches and media talking heads all seem to agree that the missed call was blatant, critical and yet another example of how the inherent limitations of NFL refereeing are affecting the outcome of too many professional football games.
Here, we answer some basic yet important questions about this frustrating and inexplicable no-call and check in on how the football world is reacting to something so blatantly unfair.
Here’s the situation: the game was tied at 20 in the fourth quarter with under two minutes left on the clock, the Saints had the ball on the Rams 13-yard line and it was third-and-ten.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees got a pass off intended for wide receiver Tommylee Lewis who looked to be able to catch the ball near the sidelines.
But before the ball arrives, Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman launches into the picture, delivering a fierce helmet-to-helmet hit that prevents Lewis from staying vertical, let alone from catching the incoming ball.
That’s the big mystery – how could something so obvious to everyone watching the game be completely missed by the men whose main job is to notice such things.
Penalties like pass interference and helmet-to-helmet are considered judgment calls, so it can only be assumed that, according to the referee’s judgment, no foul occurred.
The refs appeared to be in position to see the penalty, but unwilling to make the call.
Sometimes referees will ‘let the players play’ in the fourth quarter and purposely not throw a flag on close calls so that officiating doesn’t dictate the outcome of games.
But when asked if “the timing of the game might have had an impact on a no-call there,” NFL head referee Bill Vinovich replied, “Absolutely not.”
It’s ironic how the penalty no-call actually did end up dictating the outcome of the game.
Payton couldn’t throw the challenge flag and have the booth review the play because, according to the NFL rules, it’s a non-reviewable play.
Had either of the two penalties, the helmet-to-helmet hit or the pass interference, been called, the result would have been a fifteen-yard penalty and an automatic first down with about 1:45 remaining on the clock.
The Saints could have knelt for three downs and let the clock run down to less than five seconds and then kicked the game winning field goal.
Then, even if there was any time left on the clock, the Rams would have had to manage a kickoff return and a touchdown in just one or two seconds which is incredibly difficult and unlikely.
So yes, had the refs called a penalty in this case, the Saints would have certainly won the Conference Championship game and gone on to the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
Receiver Lewis would know more than anyone whether he was hit in the helmet before he had a legitimate chance to make a grab for the ball.
Lewis has no doubt in his mind that it was a penalty.
“I saw the defender coming. He got up under me. I got up looking for a flag and didn’t see one. It was a bad call.”
First off, Robey-Coleman says that Lewis wasn’t even his man to cover, but when he saw that he was about to catch the ball, he dove at Lewis to prevent the reception.
On Twitter, he was quoted as saying, “Yes, I got there too early. I was beat, and I was trying to save the touchdown.”
But according to Robey-Coleman, after the play the referee told him that his hit was legal since Drew Brees’ pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage.
Had it not been for the tipped ball, Robey-Coleman says he would have been called for the pass interference.
Interesting, but that still doesn’t excuse the blatant no-call of what was clearly a helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless player.
NFL head referee Bill Vinovich was interviewed by the press, but his responses only added to the frustration of football fans who felt the refs blew the call.
Regarding the no-call that the entire football world was reacting to, Vinovich reminds everyone that it’s “a judgment call by the officials,” but then inexplicably adds, “I personally have not seen the play.”
Well then, maybe the NFL should hire a head referee who has the time and interest to actually sit down and watch the Conference Championship games of the league he’s in charge of officiating.
Yes, he did a presser after the game and, though obviously disappointed and upset, Payton was direct and showed class.
Said Payton: “Obviously it’s a disappointing way to lose a game. It’s frustrating.”
When asked if the call had been blown, Payton didn’t hesitate.
“Just getting off the phone with the league office. They blew the call… That call puts it first and 10. We’re on our knee three plays [and kicking the field goal] and it’s a game changing call.”
NFL players have to be careful with what they say about the refereeing because they can (and have been) fined for speaking negatively.
Quarterback Drew Brees showed his true sportsmanship by not blaming no-call for the loss, but still he had some words about it:
“Yeah, that’s tough to swallow… Obviously in a situation like that where it seemed like everybody in the world saw it, it’s tough.”
Yes, Saints’ owner Gayle Benson issued a statement on Monday.
In it, she said that her team was “unfairly deprived” of a chance to reach the Super Bowl.
Benson also declared her intention to “aggressively pursue changes in NFL policies to ensure no team and fan base is ever put in a similar position again.”
Rams head coach Sean McVay’s reaction after the game was what anyone who’s on the good end of a bad call would be.
McVay told the media, “I thought it was a bang-bang type play. The one thing I respect about the refs today is that they let the guys compete and they let the guys play.”
Then he stated the obvious and said, “Certainly I’m not going to complain about the way that was officiated.”
Rams running back Todd Gurley got a lot of attention from his Instagram post regarding the no-call.
It shows Gurley holding up a referee’s jersey posed next to a ref holding up a Gurley II jersey, as if they had just exchanged them, as is the tradition between players.
The photo drew instant ire from talking heads like New York radio host Mike Francesa, who was outraged, saying, “That’s such a bad thing to do, number one. Number two, they have to stay distant from the players.”
Except it turns out the picture was Photoshopped, but regardless the anger it caused was very real.
Harry Connick Jr., a Louisiana native, immediately wrote a heartfelt yet furious letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Connick pulls no punches, and at one point the letter reads, “To not call the pass interference/helmet-to-helmet penalties at the end of the game was one of the most disgraceful no-calls I have ever seen.”
And then Connick writes with eloquence the sentiment that seems to be flying through every football fan’s furious head:
“…it sickens me to know that the people who are assigned to fairly officiate the game seemingly had no regard for not only a dangerous penalty but one that would certainly have changed the outcome of the game.”
NBA legend Lebron James chimed in on Twitter:
On another note. Them ?’s be on some ?. Hate to see that happen in such a great game! ?????
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 20, 2019
Though actress Sandra Bullock didn’t personally react to the big no-call, her now-famous blindfolded image in the movie Bird Box was used multiple times to represent the NFL refs who blew the call.
The ref on that last play. pic.twitter.com/KUYWtZgKju
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 20, 2019
For the first time in NFL forever there doesn’t seem to be a lot of disagreement on whether this no-call was a blown call.
Twitter lit up with furious tweets, and not just from angry Saints fans. Here are a few:
Wow, has to be one of the worst no calls I’ve seen.
— Kyle Emanuel (@KyleEmanuel51) January 20, 2019
This game should be over. Abominable no-call.
— Doug Farrar (@NFL_DougFarrar) January 20, 2019
Committing PI so egregious that the ref didn’t believe it could have been real is a good strategy
— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) January 20, 2019
And the angry Tweets truly go on and on…
As of yesterday, Roger Goodell has remained silent about the missed call.
Since the league has already admitted the mistake to Payton, it’s assumed that at some point they will put out a public statement admitting to the flub.
What’s not clear is what the league intends to do about the Saints being deprived of their Super Bowl opportunity, but Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas has Tweeted a suggestion.
Rule 17 Section 2 Article 3 @NFL ???
— Michael Thomas (@Cantguardmike) January 21, 2019
Thomas is referring to where in the NFL rulebook it actually allows the league to reverse an outcome of a game affected by “unfair acts.”
The rule goes on to state that…
“…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.”
In other words, a do-over.
Unfortunately, the league has never used that rule to reverse the outcome of a game, so it’s not very likely to do that now.
Instead, a public apology will be issued and the Saints will be expected to forgive and go marching on.
But even Sports Illustrated has called on Goodell to use his almighty powers for good and allow a do-over in a Monday Tweet:
People in New Orleans will be playing “what if” for years, but it turns out Roger Goodell has the power to turn the hypothetical into reality
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 21, 2019
Hard to imagine Goodell making this one right with an unprecedented do-over between the Rams and Saints, but with the entire city of New Orleans threatening to boycott the Super Bowl, anything is possible.
Football fans will just have to wait and see.
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Mike Lukas is a retired standup comedian turned freelance writer now living in Dallas, Texas, originally from Cleveland, Ohio. His love for the game of football and all things Cleveland Browns turned Mike into a pro blogger years ago. Now Mike enjoys writing about all thirty-two NFL teams, hoping to help football gamblers gain a slight edge in their pursuit of the perfect wager. Email: [email protected]More info on Mike Lukas
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