I’m finally ready to talk about it.
I’ve been a Saints fan my whole life and in spite of that, I grew up loving football. The Saints were terrible for most of my childhood, but my dad still had season tickets and would take me to the games, paper bags tucked in under our t-shirts in the likely event the Saints would lose. Perhaps covering our faces would save some of the embarrassment.
If I got in trouble in school, I couldn’t go to the game on Sunday. I was on my best behavior for 10 weeks out of the year. 13-year-old Martin went on a date with my first-ever girlfriend to a Saints-Eagles preseason game. My favorite radio call of all time is Jim Henderson screaming “Hakim dropped the ball, Hakim dropped the ball! Brian Milne might have fallen on it on the 10 yard line!” while Hokie Gajan expressed disbelief. In that moment, Henderson said what every Saints fan believed for a moment: here is a God, after all.
My childhood was littered with Saints losses. My dad would joke and say the NO displayed on television graphics stood for “No Team”. I had mastery level experience of dealing with losses before I knew how to drive.
It’s one thing to lose. It’s another thing entirely to have the chance to win taken away from you. And that’s what happened in the NFC Championship Game.
Everyone saw when Nickell Robey-Coleman interefered with Tommylee Lewis by hitting him helmet-to-helmet on 3rd & 10. Well, everyone but the officials. Bill Vinovich, the head official, admitted as such. There were two referees with their heads turned right at the action. Maybe they had their eyes closed, because no flag was thrown.
It was the worst non-call in the history of professional football. So bad in fact, the discussion it sparked nationally was "should pass interference penalties be reviewed?”.
While surely this is a question worthy of debate, it’s immaterial to the subject at hand. There was no penalty on the play, according to the officials on the field.
The question we should be asking is something more in the lines of “should referees throw flags when they see obvious penalties?” but that wouldn’t make for very compelling television, because there’s only one option. Separately, this call was so bad, it completely overshadows the missed pass interference call on Brees’ overtime interception. It would have been a good case to demand replay. On replay, it’s evident that Dante Fowler did not touch the ball while hitting Brees - which makes John Johnson III’s bear hug pass interference.
The NFL is a zero-sum game. We demand their quarterback deliver an accurate, on-time football no matter the size of the defender bending the edge. We demand wide receivers make catches in rain, snow, sleet or hail. We demand defenders make tackles and disrupt offenses. We demand kickers never miss. We demand coaches use timeouts and challenges at the appropriate times. We enforce these demands and players get cut or traded if they don’t meet them.
Just ask Brandon Bostic. Or Ty Montgomery. If Tommylee Lewis had dropped that ball, no one would have been surprised if he was released on Monday. The same goes for Nickell Robey-Coleman, had Lewis caught the walk-in touchdown. It was a touchdown for the Super Bowl.
Actions (and inactions) have consequences. The NFL hold it’s players to an impossible standard of success. It should hold its officials to the same standard.
On Monday’s Undisputed, Skip Bayless listed off the names of the officials at the scene of the crime. I understood why. I’ve watched pro football my whole life and could only name a few active referees before this weekend. Who are these nameless, faceless people who have such an impact on the game? Why don’t we know them? We hold literally every other person on the field accountable. Why aren’t we holding the officials accountable?
I understand officials are human and miss calls. Things are happening very fast on a football field. Some calls are hard to see and subjective. If we slow down and review every play, the game will lose excitement and watchability.
This was not one of those calls.
This was a bare minimum call. This was blatant. This was obvious. This was not a missed graze of Jared Goff’s facemask, or even the missed pass interference in overtime that caused Brees to throw his overtime interception. If this had happened Week 1, it would have been used as a example for helmet-to-helmet contact.
If an official didn’t see the foul on the play, I don’t think it’s unfair to question their competency. But how can I do that if I don’t know who they are?
NFL coaches, executives and players work year round at honing their craft for the chance to play in the best professional football league in the world. But in the offseason when Sean Payton is drawing up the perfect 3rd and 10 play while studying film, Drew Brees working on lofting the ball perfectly on a wheel route to the right pylon, and Tommylee Lewis practicing his footwork to tightrope the sideline, head official Bill Vinovich will be sprinting up and down the sidelines officiating college basketball games. Perhaps later in the summer he’s working his third job, as a Certified Public Accountant.
Why aren’t NFL officials full-time employees? It is the only league with part-time employees as officials. With legalized sports betting sweeping the nation, there will be more scrutiny than ever on referees.
There were several missed calls during the NFC Championship Game, none more egregious than the pass interference in question. (Sidenote: stop bringing up the missed facemask. It was a much easier call to miss, and had a much smaller impact on the outcome of the game. That’s the 2019 version of: “But what about her emails?”) Officials should have to answer for their mistakes, just like we make players do.
Fans will hold officials to the same standards we hold coaches, general managers, and players to: be right, all the time. It’s time for the NFL to do the same.
The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things, and see there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown.