NFC Championship: Rams at Saints
“For a call like that not to be made, man, it’s just hard to swallow.”
Saints coach Sean Payton addressed reporters having gotten off the phone with senior vice-president of officiating Al Riveron. According to Payton, Riveron had already admitted a key play in the waning minutes of regulation should have been defensive pass interference.
There is not much to equivocate about on the call. The covering wing officials, down judge Patrick Turner and side judge Gary Cavaletto, discussed whether contact from Rams cornerback Mickell Robey-Coleman on Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis was illegal, and decided there would be no flag. Back judge Todd Prukop was also in position to make a call.
A foul would have brought up a first down and the ability to run out the clock prior to scoring, rather than the fourth-down field goal for the Saints with 1:41 on the clock, and the Rams tying the game at the end of regulation and winning in overtime.
The frustrating part is there were two opportunities to get this right.
When looked at in real-time, the contact is a lot closer than we see in replay. Contact can precede the ball if it is nearly simultaneous, what is called a bang-bang play. That is not the case here, as Robey-Coleman did deliberately contact Lewis attempting to make a play on the receiver and clearly arrived early, even though close.
The second opportunity the crew had was the helmet contact. A player in the act of receiving a pass is deemed “defenseless,” protected from forcible blows to the head or neck area. In this case, the helmet-to-helmet contact can be seen as well. If there is contact to the body which is simultaneous, then there is a case that the head contact is not forcible, and thus not a foul. There is a bit of an overriding provision. Officials are told to “err on the side of a foul” in cases of player safety like this. In other words, when presented with a borderline call, tip in favor of the flag. Between the three covering officials, it did not come to that.
Whatever the decision, referee Bill Vinovich said that the game situation has nothing to do with the call. “Absolutely not,” Vinovich told a pool reporter after the game.
Vinovich was incredibly brief with his response, much to the frustration of fans and media. “It was a judgment call by the covering official,” Vinovich said. “I personally have not seen the play.” This is by design. The only reason Vinovich is talking to the media is to clarify rules or officiating mechanics. He is not allowed to offer opinions on calls to the media; that is the job of Riveron. He also could not even comment on the play, because he is watching the quarterback at the end of the play, not the flight of the pass.
To that end, for hours after the game, the only word from the league is that which was funneled through Payton. There is no public acknowledgement of the call, despite a Twitter feed that provides official statements (signed with “-Al” when they come from Riveron) during the course of games. The only statement from the league for hours after the conclusion of the game had to do with the overtime rules.
This is an unacceptable media blackout on a clear officiating controversy in a conference championship game, when we get feedback much sooner on a random noncontroversial play in September.
This has brought up an inevitable cry for making all fouls subject to a replay review. This has been looked at by the Competition Committee in the past, but it would open Pandora’s box. Any big play could go to a replay — a touchdown or a turnover by the replay official or a big gain challenged by the coach — to find any small matter that could be flagged. Could holding be called? An umpire might correctly determine that a grab did not constitute holding, but replay substitutes their judgment and nullifies a touchdown.
In this case, it is abundantly clear what the call should be, but for the most part a foul/no foul call is subjective, and replay is established to not replace the judgment in real time. The CFL has made pass interference reviewable with mixed results. It is not a silver-bullet solution for the NFL.
Pool report with referee Bill Vinovich
Q: What was the reason that there was no penalty flag called on the Drew Brees pass to Tommylee Lewis?
Bill Vinovich: It was a judgment call by the covering official. I personally have not seen the play.
Q: Did the timing in the game have any impact on the no-call there?
Vinovich: Absolutely not.
Q: In this situation, is the play subject to an instant replay review?
Vinovich: It is not a reviewable play.