Let's talk about that garbage non-call at the end of the Saints/Rams game

Is there anything to talk about? Even the man responsible for this travesty says it was pass interference. In terms of both incompetence *and* the magnitude of the error in influencing the outcome of the season, it’s likely the worst call in the history of the NFL.

Fourth quarter, game tied at 20, less than two minutes left, Saints driving for what seemed inevitably would either be a TD or a game-winning field goal as time expired. When Drew Brees targeted receiver Tommylee Lewis for a pass down the sideline, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman came over to pick him up — but too late. In that split second he resolved to break up the play by any means necessary, which in this case meant mugging Lewis. “Ah, hell yeah, that was PI,” said Robey-Coleman after the game, adding, “I got there too early. I was beat, and I was trying to save the touchdown.”

Football fans joke often about the refs being in the tank, usually in the context of Patriots games, but this is the first call I can remember where a conspiracy theory actually seems to be the likeliest explanation. All of the normal reasons for why contact between the defender and the receiver before the ball arrives might not be pass interference are missing here. Lewis clearly had a play on the ball potentially; it wasn’t thrown six feet over his head. Robey-Coleman just as clearly wasn’t making a play on the ball himself, as he’s not even looking at it en route to Lewis. Had he done so, he’d probably have picked it off, possibly setting up the Rams to win in regulation time. That’s the only redeeming aspect of this.

Even if you’re of the belief that the refs should be less inclined to call penalties during crunch time of a big game, there’s obviously a limit to that principle. Flagrant penalties need to be called. You can’t punch a man in the face to break up a completion, for instance. How flagrant was Robey-Coleman’s hit on Lewis? Saints coach Sean Payton claims that the league told him after the game that not one but two flags could have been thrown for the hit — pass interference or helmet-to-helmet. The refs missed both. Hence the conspiracy theory: The NFL is so desperate to build interest for football in LA that they bent over backwards to send the Rams to the Super Bowl.

I don’t quite believe that. But I don’t quite disbelieve it either.

The good people of New Orleans, meanwhile, are taking it in stride:

A petition at Change.org calling for a do-over of the game next week has 180,000 signatures as I write this. Guess which play is featured in the photo accompanying the petition. Interestingly, the commissioner does have some authority in theory to take extraordinary action when the outcome of a game is obviously tainted: “The Commissioner has the sole authority to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary and/or corrective measures if any club action, non-participant interference, or calamity occurs in an NFL game which the Commissioner deems so extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football that such action has a major effect on the result of the game.” Does a blown call meet any part of that description, though? It’s not exactly “non-participant interference”; that seems aimed at a scenario in which, say, a fan runs onto the field during a play. It’s not a “calamity” either. I mean, it is, but that sort of language would seem to point to some sort of disaster inside the stadium.

Besides. Of all administrative personnel across all four major sports, does anyone expect Roger Goodell to be the one to take unprecedented action in the interests of fairness?

To atone the Rams should have to represent New Orleans in the Super Bowl by moving there within the next two weeks — where, let’s face it, they’ll still have more fans than they do in LA, even after yesterday’s debacle. In reality Rams fans will have to mount their defense with the same two-pronged approach that teams always use when they benefit enormously from an obvious blown call — point to the many mistakes made by the losing team that contributed to their loss and to the many blown calls that worked against the victors during less momentous plays earlier in the game. Many have noted correctly that the Saints’ time management in those final two minutes was awful. By running the ball more often they could have eaten up enough clock to make it difficult, possibly impossible, for the Rams to drive for a tying field goal in the final 90 seconds.

As for blown calls that benefited the Saints, take your pick:


That top left panel shows a missed facemask call during a scramble by Rams QB Jared Goff during a fourth-quarter drive that, if called, would have given them first-and-goal from the two-yard-line. Instead LA ended up settling for a field goal, which is why the game was tied when the fateful non-call on Robey-Coleman happened.

Not as blatant as the missed PI call later and in nowhere near as big a spot, but hugely consequential. Enjoy the Super Bowl, Rams fans. Or, I should probably say, “Rams fan.” There must be one out there.

So much for Saints/Rams. Want to talk about New England/Kansas City too? Never have I watched a football game where the outcome of the overtime coin toss seemed more decisive, and it happened to come during a game whose winner would go to the Super Bowl. Does anyone doubt that if KC had won the flip, Mahomes would have gotten into the end zone somehow? The new OT rules ensure that the winning team deserved their win a bit more than the old “sudden death” OT rules did, but Nate Silver thinks we can do better:

I think we should do it like soccer and have a skills competition between the two QBs in overtime to see who can throw the ball through a tire 10 feet away the most times. Either way, it seems like the two conference championship games are destined to produce some significant rule changes in the offseason. One: Each team gets the ball and an opportunity to answer a score by the other in overtime, even if that score is a touchdown. (The Pats and Chiefs might still be playing as I write this.) And two, obviously: Teams can now challenge plays where they believe a penalty should have been called but wasn’t, with the replay officials in the booth getting the final say.