It's almost too easy for NFL officials to fix games or shave points. Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams underscored that.
Rams defensive Nickell Robey-Coleman hammered Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis before a pass arrived during the final two minutes of regulation time. That interference was spectacularly obvious.
Robey-Coleman nailed him with a helmet-to-helmet hit as well. That, too, couldn't have been more clear.
By ignoring both blatant infractions, the officials denied the Saints the opportunity to run down the clock, kick a last-second, game-winning field goal and head to the Super Bowl.
Instead, the stunning non-calls gave the Rams time to force overtime and win 26-23. Our old friend Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein kicked the game-winning 57-yard field goal.
Tipsheet isn't claiming that the fix was in. But with this country racing toward legalized gambling, the impact of such egregious officiating mistakes will multiply.
Sports executives see a day coming where fans routinely make real-time wagers with their hand-held devices while sitting in the stadium, on a stool in a sports bar or on their sofa.
Money will ride on every play. The financial stakes will be out in the open, perhaps flashed on stadium scoreboards and displayed on telecast graphics.
So when a defensive back can get away with eradicating a wide receiver while the last-minute red zone pass to him is still en route . . . well, you can imagine the implications. Millions of dollars could change hands because of one mistake.
The NFL will either have to expand replay to fix obvious blunders or subject officials to intense legal scrutiny. Did they, or anybody they were associated with, have money on the game?
With gambling still somewhat under cover, the heat over that blown call isn't as intense. The Saints and their fans are furious and pundits are worked into a frenzy -- but there is no reason to call in the FBI.
"Listen, it's a hard job for those guys 'cause it's happening fast. But I don't know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call that," Saints coach Sean Payton told reporters after the game. "Here it is, the NFC Championship Game. So, it's a tough one to swallow."
Payton said he spoke to NFL head of official Alberto Riveron after the game. "The first thing he said when I got on the phone -- 'We messed it up.'" Payton said.
Here is what folks were writing about this fiasco:
Albert Breer, SI.com: "As has been the case, to a lesser degree, on other Monday mornings this year, you woke up today to more talk about a bad call in football game. And you should. Because what happened in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday was as bad as it gets, the NFL’s worst nightmare come alive after a year in which the officials were criticized constantly. A terrible officiating failure cost a team a trip to the Super Bowl. That’s no exaggeration either. There was 1:48 showing when Saints quarterback Drew Brees feathered the ball down the right sideline to Tommylee Lewis, who looked back for it, only to take a crushing head shot from Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, who was on time for the hit like the Giants used to be on time for Tom Coughlin’s meetings: about five minutes early. It was pass interference. It was helmet-to-helmet, too. And if the officials call it, the Saints have first-and-goal at the 5 with 1:45 left. From there, the Rams would have been forced to burn their final timeout, and the Saints could have bled the clock dry and kicked a field goal to win the game with no time left. Instead, they kicked the field goal with 1:41 remaining, leaving plenty of time for the Rams to tie the game, which they would."
Rodger Sherman, The Ringer: "This was a blown call. It wasn’t a 50-50 play, like the famous Fail Mary; it wasn’t a misinterpretation of a confusing rule, like the Tuck Rule game game. There’s no extenuating circumstance that can explain why this call was missed. It was just a mistake, an obvious, inexplicable failure. The officials for playoff games are supposedly the best in the sport, and one missed a bafflingly simple call that likely changed who will participate in the Super Bowl. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call this the worst officiating mistake in the sport's history. Everybody instantly acknowledged that the call was wrong. Officiating blog Football Zebras said so. Former NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino said so. Saints head coach Sean Payton said that the league acknowledged to him that the call was missed. The league reportedly will not publicly issue a mea culpa, because 'Hey, one of the teams in the Super Bowl probably shouldn’t be in the Super Bowl' seems like a bad look. It would be unprecedented, but I’d argue that the NFL needs to publicly acknowledge this failure to earn back any semblance of trust. The NFL should also consider changing how it deals with pass-interference penalties. In the Canadian Football League, pass-interference calls (and non-calls) are reversible by video review. The NFL has been hesitant to make 'judgment calls' reviewable, for the sake of brevity and to maintain a certain level of power for on-field officials. But I can’t imagine any argument against having a mechanism in place to overturn egregious officiating errors. Sunday’s game should be a catalyst for change. The mistake was so big and so meaningful that it has to be fixed."
John Breech, CBSSports.com: "Payton is on the NFL's competition committee and if they're looking to make sure something like this never happens again, the solution is simple: Let every potential call be reviewable. Every. Single. One. On the surface, this idea might sound crazy, but trust me, it makes a lot of sense. First, you wouldn't change anything else about the replay system. The most important thing here is that coaches would still only get two challenges per game, which means the new replay system wouldn't cause games to drag on forever. Also, the potential review of any controversial call that happens with under two minutes left to play in either half would still be the responsibility of the replay booth. In the case of the NFC Championship, the replay assistant would have buzzed down to the field after the Robey-Coleman play and there would have been zero controversy. (Referee Bill) Vinovich would have spoken to the replay official and the two would have penalized the Rams for an obvious pass interference."
Peter King, NBC Sports: "This is a huge moment for officiating. Will side judge Gary Cavaletto or down judge Patrick Turner, or both, be fired, for missing the most obvious pass interference penalty in playoff history? If the call gets made, it’s conceivable and perhaps likely that the Saints would have made the Super Bowl. The upshot. As soon as this call got made, I heard from a couple of acquaintances/sources about the impact of it. 'Al Riveron [EVP of Officiating] is gone,' one said. 'He can’t survive this.' Another said the league will have to pay big to bring back Dean Blandino or Mike Pereira (less likely). I think Riveron was on thin ice before Sunday. What the NFL should do, if it decides to dump Riveron, is pay realistic money to get Blandino back from his cushy gig at FOX. He’s a trusted and trustworthy guy."
"I didn't look back at the ball. I didn't play the ball. If I had played the ball, then it would've been a different story. ... And then the ref said, like, it looked it was a tip. Like, it was, like, tipped. So I was like, 'OK, cool.'"
• Nickell Robey-Coleman, on getting away with pass interference and a helmet-to-helmet hit against the Saints.