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Saints unable to run clock after no-call pass interference

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.

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Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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22 thoughts on “Saints unable to run clock after no-call pass interference

  1. I think as far as reviewing penalties goes, it could work if you make coaches challenge for a specific foul. The review would then involve the officials responsible for that area. It would allow the officials who made the call, or not, in live action to confirm or deny what they saw. This way you’re not substituting the judgment of another.

    I don’t think anyone would suggest a blanket challenge that would involve the whole play being looked at under a microscope for any sort of potential foul.

  2. Tell Vinovich to watch the quarterback not the flight of the ball On a video of the play you can see that he is looking at the play the DJ and the S need to Nut up and make the crew saving call!!!!!!

  3. I think you can have replay for Pass Interference without opening a Pandora’s Box. Just as with a fumble where you need not only the ball out, but also a clear recovery by a team, you can limit what is reviewed on Pass Interference. The rule can prohibit reviews about whether a ball was catchable, but allow review if the requisite contact was present. If no announcement was made and a challenge flag is thrown then allow it to be picked up without penalty if advised that the reason for the no call was due to ball being deemed uncatchable.

  4. Gosh darned it, this sucks.

    A championship game was determined by a terrible missed call.

    And, you geniuses are worried about who said what after the game. Vinovich could have done a 20 minute presser and answered 30 questions … the Saints still would have been screwed. Oh, and if you watch the play Vinovich is a bald faced liar when he says he didn’t see the play. On the replay … he is staring right at it.

    As for the play – #60 Cavaletto should just retire right now. It was his sideline and his view. Just quit. The BJ Prukup should be suspended for part of next season. Patrick Turner (DJ 13) – who is a good official – also should be suspended for part of next season. Maybe, there is a communication issue because the crews are pasted together at the end of the year? I do not know.

    I am not a Saints fan. But, this was disgusting. A game was decided by an unforgivably bad call in the last minute of a championship game. A true nightmare for the league.

    There are two remedies I can suggest for this. First, the NFL should select crews and not individuals for the playoffs. I truly believe that this would have been fixed if the crew knew each other better and could have spoken about it as trusted team members. It’s hard to fix a missed call when you do not trust each other, because you aren’t totally familiar with one another. Secondly, only hire the best officials. Stop with the skin and kin obsession. And, never hire a woman. That is just a dumb stunt that jeopardizes the quality of officiating. The officials in the power 5 are probably now better than the NFL. Third, dump the bad officials early on. The Hugo firing this year was a just punishment for an awful official. But, why so isolated? For example, how did Jeff Triplette stay on the field for so long? There are a few working now who are losing to father time or were never any good to begin with.

    Every crew in the NFL should be good enough to ref the Super Bowl … sadly, right now, they couldn’t even assemble an all star crew for the NFC Championship.

    This is on you Roger Goodell – you own this!

  5. Cal State Fullerton (35 Minutes from the L.A. Coliseum), Cal State Long Beach (25 Minutes from the Coliseum), and Hancock College (Located in Santa Maria, CA 2.5 hours north of the Coliseum). That’s where the 3 referees that “called” this play went to school and where they live…aka the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. If anybody from L.A. cared about the Rams perhaps a case could be made that this impacted the non-call.

    Moving forward, I think the NFL is open to huge scandal with expanded legalized sports betting and a team in Las Vegas. The players are well compensated. If I were looking to influence a game I’d target the refs. They make the least and can have an inordinate impact on the game.

  6. @John Weymouth – Not for a minute do I believe that the officials were targeted by gambling thugs. And, if so … could they have waited until the last minute to affect the game.

    Simplest solution – ONLY hire the best officials! Keep the crews together all year! And, fire the bad ones! Get serious about the quality.

  7. It’s a shame this happened, and Gene Steratore, Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino all agree this was not a “bang-bang” in real time play, and the flag should have been thrown. Fine. But what now? Gary Cavaletto earned his place on that field by being (in theory) the #2 or #3 side judge out of 17 all season long. But we’re all human. Firing him or any of the other covering officials accomplishes nothing, and it’s certainly not Al Riveron’s fault. It’s not reviewable … but SHOULD it be? Mike Pereira is on the record as saying if the NFL were to add an eighth official to a crew, it wouldn’t be like the NCAA, but it should be more like a booth reviewer to correct the obvious errors of commission or omission in areas not currently covered by replay. Maybe now would be the time to look into that possibility.

  8. As for keeping crews together for the playoffs, I say no. You want the best OFFICIALS on the field for that, and what if a crew has a rookie or a weak link? Art McNally didn’t allow rookies to do playoff games, as I recall, because he felt a newbie should have two seasons on the field to qualify. I believe that policy still holds. (Only two second-year officials got playoff assignments this season.) I looked at the playoff assignments, and every position had eight who qualified to be on the field except down judge (nine). You might want to look at that policy and say only four at each position qualify, and those four crews work both the wild-card games and the divisional games, and then assign the #2 and #3 officials to the conference championships and #1 to the Super Bowl.

  9. By the time you get to the professional leagues in any sport, you worked with hundreds of other officials in your sport and possibly other sports. You know your job, you can do it well, and you can work through adversity. I think the current policy of creating all-star crews is the right call here. These officials can work with whomever you put next to them.
    My question is: are replay reversals still counted against the officials on their performance reviews? Especially with Central Command intervening, the Referee is no longer responsible for his crew’s calls, rather the NFL Execs are.
    The officials have to be as fit or more fit than the players. A call in the 1st minute should be the same call in the 60th minute. Players can make mistakes throughout the game, yet referees can’t. I say that with much disgust, as we are all human and we will make mistakes. For 2-3 (maybe 4) officials to miss the same call is rare, but the most important thing is for the league and officials to learn from this, make adjustments, and move on.

  10. Here’s the thing. The second or third best official at each of those positions didn’t make that call when it was directly in front of them. The referee was looking directly at it (and he clearly was when you look at the replay) and didn’t or couldn’t do anything about it. The officials in the other game called a roughing the passer when a hand grazed Brady’s shoulder. So either no one has any idea how to evaluate officials, or all of them are terrible.

    How the hell do they get together to talk about it and not fix the call. If the one guy says he didn’t throw a flag because he thought it was tipped, how does no one say “No, it wasn’t” so they can correct themselves.

  11. This is Al Riveron’s department and ultimately his responsibility.

    If it were just on-field calls like this, I’d question how much control he has. Al Riveron’s Replay Center has been an absolute disaster this year and last. He’s clearly proven again and again that you, me or some guy off the street could do just as well or better. That’s the main reason he should be gone. The incompetence he’s demonstrated in Replay clearly extends to the rest of his job as well.

  12. Another atrocious year of officiating in the NFL. Honesty, Integrity and morals seem to have been replaced by bias during the Rams game. For the RAMS coach and players to take such pride in winning does not show a lot for their integrity either. Rams have gotten away with blatant offensive holding all year long and have gloried in that fact. I believe those who say this is all about markets have a point. Even the head of the NFLRA has admitted on this site that officials call what the NFL wants them to call. All officials in the Rams/Saints game should be banned from officiating for at least 1/2 of next years season. I am getting more disgusted with the NFL every year because it is getting unwatchable due to some darn many commercials (that interrupt continuity for audience and teams) and the incredibly incompetent and many times seemingly bias attitude of the officials.

  13. Sorry to have forgot about Voinivich holding up the game so Rams could make defensive substitutions on one of the plays. With this and the lack of significant calls against the Rams go ahead and tell me there was no bias on the part of the officials.

  14. I really like the comments from this website. It seems all are reasonable with assessments and looking for solutions. I particularly agree with the comments regarding the need for quality officials. Kickers, for instance, often lose their jobs for missing a big kick. The same should hold true for officials. Finally, the only thing worse than missing a call that should have been made is making up a call that never happened. At least that was not the case here.

  15. The rules state that if the offense substitute then the defense has the right to do so as well and that play should be held up until both teams have fully substituted. This is designed to prevent “last second” substitutions designed to catch Defenses in the wrong scheme or not having 11 players on the field.

  16. Bottom line- There are 17 crews. The NFL should be able to build 17 superstar crews. Basically, about 120 officials.

    Why can’t they have 120 great officials? Do they now? HA! Currently, there are many sub par officials. Nobody could convince me that the NFL has hired the best officials. You can’t tell me that the power 5 are not loaded with officials that are far better than the bottom half of the NFL. Does the NFL not pay more?

    This is the result. Crews that work together all year should work together in the big games. The problem is that so many officials are awful that you have to create “superstar” crews. And, yes, you must put superstar in air quotes. Oh, and this crap happened all year. Missed false starts, marking off the wrong yards, calling phantom roughing penalties. It’s getting old.

    So, the NFL could stay pat and be humiliated the Monday after championship weekend or … they could fire a good lot of the officials, keep the good ones and start fresh.

  17. This was a horribly officiated game. Rams fans actually started a petition to remove Vinovich, because of the amount of non-calls and seemingly biased distribution of calls in the games he officiates. This play was one of the most egregious, but they were missing calls all day. They didn’t call a face mask on Goff the previous drive that would have been a first down at the 2. They missed an insane amount of offensive holding calls. This game would have looked dramatically different had at least half of the calls been made throughout the game. I cannot say who would have won, but in this case the officials “let them play” and the Rams won.

  18. I know the ref is going to say it had nothing to do with the game situation, but I am convinced it had. You can’t tell me all three officials would miss that call if it was the first quarter of a regular season game week 2. But officials swallowing their whistles is such a common phenomena that you got to imagine the NFL likes it that way.

  19. @Knowledge Is Good

    Although I’m not the author I’m offering a little insight into what they may be thinking when they say “I wish he had said more” after the game. BTW I do agree it was a badly missed call. I’m a Vikings fan so I know pain first hand.

    I don’t know if you are actually an official of any sport but some of us are. In the heat of the moment a call is made crucial decisions and discussions are had. Sometimes technical in nature and sometimes discussing what they saw from their respective angles. They are very aware of how much time has elapsed and on a stage that big key components are decided in seconds. Did the defender turn his head? Was the ball catchable? Who initiated the contact? Etc, etc.

    The reason a more thorough explanation might help us is because even if they were wrong we’d like to know the steps they took to make their decision. Was their non-call based on a technical interpretation of one aspect of the play? Even if they “read” it wrong at least we’d know why. In the heat of the moment did they ask the right questions? From the naked eye it sure looked and felt like pass interference. Maybe they had a reason to make me change my mind?

    A good example of this is a play from the World Series a few years back where the final game was won by an obstruction call. The third base umpire knew exactly the technical interpretation of obstruction and called it. Everyone was freaking out but the umpires had a perfect recall and explanation for why they called it the way they did. In this case they pretty much didn’t respond at all. Maybe they knew it was that bad? Maybe they had no idea how bad it was? But maybe they did? Some sort of attempt at an explanation would be nice.

    As a professional sports referee myself I understand the technical details of the rules at an expert level. As I would presume these referees do. I’m not saying there’s an excuse for what looks like a blatant missed call but perhaps something was discussed that changed the course of the conversation. I for one would love to know what was discussed.

  20. Bring back some of the 2012 replacements! Seriously. 5 of them were selected by then Head of Recruitment Ron Baynes to work the 3 post-season NCAA games in January , 2013. There were/are several of them who could still work today!! The 2012 contract they signed expires in 2019!!

  21. @knowledgeisgood

    I don’t think that the 3 L.A. natives deliberately swallowed their whistles to give the Rams the game. Nor do I think they were bought by gamblers. However, I would argue that unconsciously the big stage and the hometown team could have combined to influence their (in)action. It’s human nature and they are humans.

    I am not a ref. But, as an air traffic controller for 3 plus decades I am very well familiar with how people act in stressful situations-nothing as important as a football game mind you 😉 The way air traffic controllers handle stressful situations is practice, practice, practice. Make all refs full time and take regional affiliations into account with game assignments. I think that would be a good start to fixing what ails NFL officiating.

  22. @John, I hope all is well with you and this government shutdown crap.

    Officiating any sport is hard and thankless, just like an ATC. As a soccer ref I know a lot of preparation goes into each and every game. We are constantly learning the game, testing ourselves, learning about the teams, specific players, formations, positioning, exercising and more. It goes well beyond the 3 hours each week that these officials are on the field. And fatigue always comes into play. I’m running 3-5 miles each soccer game, and unless I exercise by sprinting a marathon every day of course I’m gonna be tired at the end. But at the end is when we need to be our best. Even though a call in the 1st minute is the same as a call in the last minute, the scrutiny is more at the end. People will complain more about an error in the last minute than they will the first, even if the first was the worst.

    Regional affiliations will be difficult with current policies. They try to not have a crew work the same team more than twice in a year, and with 7 members on the crew there could be many potential affiliations. Should we change the policies then? Perhaps, and that is definitely a point of discussion.

    I think the grading is based too much on the performance of others and needs to be changed. I think jobs should be based on performance, not on what tier you are in, which is loosely performance but also based on needs (need X officials to ref the playoffs). In reality they only need 2 crews for the entire playoffs (game on Saturday, then fly to game on Sunday), so there should be no reason they can’t hire/fire based on performance.

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