As a public service, we are tackling some of the opinions and conspiracy theories that are propagating and, contrary to contemporary Internet standards, serving them with a dose of facts and reasoning.
1. Goodell cannot invoke Rule 17
This is probably the worst of the myths out there, mostly because of its wide circulation and the selective presentation that makes it clickbait of the highest (or lowest?) order.
Saints receiver Michael Thomas, understandably an aggrieved party under the circumstances in which his team lost, offered this rulebook reference several hours after the game:
Pro Football Talk picked up on this rule, and ran with it. Other outlets picked up on Pro Football Talk’s report, citing it as gospel. Basically, the cited rule, under a section header Extraordinarily Unfair Acts, states “The Commissioner’s powers under this Section 2 include, … 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.”
This has been interpreted that the officials being remiss in assessing a defensive pass interference foul against the Rams is an extraordinary act. As such, it gives commissioner Roger Goodell overarching authority to void the game result and either give the Saints the victory, restart the game with 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter after assessing the defensive pass interference, restart the game at 1:49 and replay the third down, or Jedi mind trick the NFC Championship game away and play it again.
None of these things can happen. Ever.
Pro Football Talk failed to report, perhaps deliberately, that Rule 17-2-2, which immediately precedes the cited rule, invalidates any of these scenarios, quoted here with added emphasis:
NO CLUB PROTESTS. The authority and measures provided for in this entire Section 2 do not constitute a protest machinery for NFL clubs to avail themselves of in the event a dispute arises over the result of a game. The investigation called for in this Section 2 will be conducted solely on the Commissioner’s initiative to review an act or occurrence that the Commissioner deems so extraordinary or unfair that the result of the game in question would be inequitable to one of the participating teams. The Commissioner will not apply authority in cases of complaints by clubs concerning judgmental errors or routine errors of omission by game officials. Games involving such complaints will continue to stand as completed.
Pass interference called incorrectly is squarely a “judgmental error” so the Commissioner could not intervene even if he wanted to. I devoted an entire chapter in my book So You Think You Know Football? to extraordinary situations such as cancellations, postponements, forfeits, and unfair acts.
2. A former Rams player was not the covering official on the controversial play
Social media was flinging this unsubstantiated information about a conflict of interest by down judge Phil McKinnely, a former journeyman offensive lineman for the Rams.
To be sure, McKinnely is a former Rams player and was on referee Bill Vinovich’s regular season crew. McKinnely was rehabbing an injury this year, and was out for several weeks. As a result, he was assigned as an alternate for a wild card game rather than getting a field assignment that he might have otherwise qualified for. The conference championship games are staffed by officials from multiple crews. The down judge for this game was 5th-year official Patrick Turner.
McKinnely’s itinerant season with the Rams is not an issue, either, just as the 5 seasons he spent on the Falcons roster and the season with the Bears over 30 years ago. (Bonus: 1 season for the Memphis Showboats in the USFL, as well.) If there were any favoritism to his former clubs, this would have been spotted a long time ago.
While Turner does live in the Los Angeles area, and side judge Gary Caveletto lives north of the San Fernando Valley, this is not an automatic disqualifier and does not make one a partisan. An official, typically a referee, can request to not be placed on games for a local team to firewall off that implication, and the league tends to oblige, only assigning that official to preseason games for the home team.
3. Vinovich cannot discuss the play in detail
Vinovich gave what has been largely received as a curt response to a pool reporter about the play. “It was a judgment call by the covering official,” Vinovich said. “I personally have not seen the play.”
The referee is responsible for the quarterback after he has thrown the ball. Once there is no threat of contact, the referee will look downfield to the conclusion of the play. Some images seem to show that Vinovich is looking in the direction of the interference, but this is speculative. At that, by looking downfield as the pass arrives, he might catch a fleeting glimpse of the contact, but probably not enough to intercede. He’s not prohibited from throwing a flag, but his position and the mechanics of the play do not give him a good perspective.
In addition, Vinovich is receiving a great deal of heat for something that is not his fault. NFL policies state that a game supervisor may grant an interview with the referee to a team’s designated pool reporter if there is a controversy. That pool reporter shares the transcript with the rest of the media. The referee may only go over matters of the rules and officiating mechanics; he is not permitted to evaluate the judgment call of an official with a possible exception for his own. This is because the decision on whether a call is correct or incorrect and whether that is revealed publicly ultimately rests with senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron, no matter how obvious that decision may be. Riveron has boxed in Vinovich by not responding publicly, and the only acknowledgement of the call by the league came in the postgame press conference and was filtered through Saints coach Sean Payton.
It is now who-cares-at-this-point since the play occurred, and the league has not even addressed the controversy. I was intending to add that the league won’t completely ignore this as another myth from this game, but I’ll still give them time to do that, I suppose.
4. Gurley did not swap jerseys with the referee
Mad Photoshop skillz were no match for a few, including the sports pope himself, but Rams running back Todd Gurley did not exchange jerseys with Vinovich. If this was an authentic image, it is a testament to Vinovich carrying around a spare vintage jersey belonging to venerable referee Jerry Markbreit.
5. Cavalleto did not wave off his colleague
Isolated images show side judge Gary Cavaletto gesturing up the sideline which has been taken by some to be a signal to suppress a flag from Turner, the down judge.
The video below shot from the stands shows that Cavaletto is giving a push-back gesture but it is clearly intended for coach Payton, who is understandably advancing down the sideline outside of the bench area. While technically a penalty, preventative officiating rightly holds the flag on this being unsportsmanlike conduct.
Cavaletto and Turner have a brief interaction, which has been interpreted as these officials confirming a prearranged decision. Officials have a set vocabulary which allows them to convey routine matters and all officials have a common understanding as to what is being discussed. Of course, this should have still been a foul, but the conversation might be something like: “Bang-bang?” “Yeah.” This succinctly conveys “Do you have the contact occurring nearly simultaneous with the ball arriving, and therefore this is not a foul?”
Update 1/23: This video confirms that this was exactly the case. Turner does say “bang-bang” to Cavaletto in their conference, which means the call on the field was that the contact was nearly simultaneous to the ball arriving. Replay exaggerates this amount of time, and in game speed it is close, but still clearly a foul.
6. Dean’s not coming back*
OK, never say never, but Dean Blandino pretty much ruled out a return to the league offices as head of officiating in his Last Call podcast with colleague Mike Pereira, who himself completely ruled out his return. This is a bit of a false-start flag on them, because it presumes that Riveron, who is definitely in the hot seat heading the department, is going to be dismissed.
To come back to the NFL offices, Blandino would have to forego the lucrative deal that Fox Sports gave him to leave the NFL in the first place. The NFL would not come close to competing on financial terms, and multiple sources have told Football Zebras that the NFL position pays “in the mid-300s.” This may seem like a lot, but this means that a major multibillion-dollar enterprise headquartered in Manhattan with a strong international brand and nearly airtight-guaranteed sustained profitability pays a senior vice president in charge of product integrity less than $400,000 a year.
In addition, Blandino would have to leave his position as the national coordinator of college replay and dissolve his consultant arrangement with the Big Ten conference. Moving back to New York would make him a transcontinental father to his children in order to work 80+-hour weeks with no offseason and to have 32 irate coaches call to chew his ass every Monday morning. What offer could possibly top that?
Dean is staying put … asterisk.