NEW ORLEANS — On the morning after heartbreak, after robbery, the mourning city did what it had to do. It cleaned up. It looked like Bourbon Street at 3 a.m. everywhere, and despite the despair, despite the immediately infamous no-call that led to the New Orleans Saints’ NFC championship game ouster Sunday, the Big Easy had to get pretty again.
An angry fan exited the Superdome the previous day yelling, “And tomorrow, we march!” There was no march. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after all. Save the March on Football for a more appropriately timed officiating debacle. There was only reality: In Super Bowl LIII, the New England Patriots will play the Los Angeles Rams, not the Saints.
All the screaming here and throughout the nation, all the calls for change, all the need for everyone to be as mad as the maddest person do not matter. The sport moves on. The NFL has admitted that Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman should have been called for a pass-interference penalty when he nailed Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis late in the fourth quarter. But it does little to comfort the Saints and their fans, who had a precious championship opportunity ripped away by human error.
After the game, men and women clad in black and gold tried to make sense of the senselessness. Some got drunker. Couples argued. And then there was the sad scene at Lucy’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, where people sat outside after midnight on a 38-degree night, seemingly in a trance, still smoking, still drinking and looking down at a sidewalk covered in plastic cups and paper plates. Those were the remnants of a raucous pregame party, back when there seemed to be no viable answer to the sing-songy question, “Who dat say they gonna beat dem Saints?”
They didn’t know the referees would be their antagonists.
So, now what? The NFL just watched one of its most exuberant cities get hosed by an egregious mistake. How does the league clean up its own mess?
For as great as Championship Sunday proved to be, for all the mettle shown by the Rams and Patriots, for all the respect the Saints and Kansas City Chiefs deserve despite losing overtime games at home, the conversation isn’t about the beauty of football right now. It’s about the officiating blunder in New Orleans that could not be fixed.
After two incredible games, it’s unfortunate that a mistake will dominate the conversation. It’s unfortunate that 40-year-old Drew Brees won’t get a chance to win a second Super Bowl ring next month. It’s unfortunate that fans who supported their team so passionately had their championship dreams end so abruptly.
But right now, it’s especially important to avoid overreaction. Given the emotions, that may be an unpopular opinion. But I’m the dude who, amid all the chaos Sunday, found reason to appreciate the Rams as more than lucky, unworthy jokers. Scream at me all you want, but this notion that the league absolutely must change its rules needs to be considered in a more thorough and less emotional manner.
If change is warranted, the adjustment doesn’t need to be crystallized a day or two after the refs went blind in New Orleans. There doesn’t need to be a quick solution implemented by next season simply because people are upset.
Here’s the thing about the sports experience: It hurts. It hurts as much as it uplifts, if not more. There are tough losses, and there are maddening, heartbreaking, illogical, make-somebody-pay defeats that you never get beyond. The Saints have experienced both in back-to-back playoff exits. A year ago, they lost on that crazy Stefon Diggs touchdown catch, a play that Minnesota Vikings fans happily call the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Now, there’s a pain that feels worse because poor officiating judgment influenced the outcome.
Human error is a part of sports. Heat-of-the-moment mindlessness is a part of sports. Choking is a part of sports. Players do it, and coaches do it, and sadly, referees do it, too. Yes, instant replay rules should be fluid. They should evolve, especially as technology advances. But for as much as we want the obvious Robey-Coleman penalty to be called, it’s dangerous to make the flat declaration that all plays in, say, the final three to five minutes of a game should be eligible for review.
That is what many have shouted for since the Saints lost a conference championship game that they should have won. Opening that Pandora’s box would come with a price, though. For instance, would you want to see a game turn on a ticky-tack roughing-the-passer call that was discovered not on the field but upon review? Do you want to see a Hail Mary negated by a holding call upon review? There’s a reason that limited and specific things such as catches and touchdowns are replayed in late-game situations rather than missed penalties.
In keeping with the approach to have strict limitations on reviews in clutch situations, the NFL competition committee is expected to consider making pass-interference calls reviewable. More broadly, perhaps there’s a way to create a special exemption for reversals of blatantly bad calls or no-calls. At least then there would be a way to make up for an extraordinary mistake. But the wording for what’s eligible would have to be so precise, and even then it puts the game another step toward a level of revisionist over-policing that should be worrisome.
As the days pass in New Orleans, the mass audience yelling that the Saints were robbed will find something else to be upset about. Soon, only the team and its fan base will truly care. That’s when the pain will intensify again. It’s the helpless feeling that stings the most.
“You feel like that was something out of your control,” Brees said.
So he focused on the things he could control. He focused on opportunities the Saints failed to convert in the red zone and on the interception he threw under pressure in overtime. He was classy enough to imply the truism of all sporting events: Mistakes define the game as much as great plays.
New Orleans, a city as resilient as it is fun, will recover. The sport moves on. It’s a terrible thought at the moment, which is why there’s an online petition calling for a Saints-Rams rematch. But this vicious cycle eventually renews hope. If the NFL is smart, it will use this debacle as motivation to improve its officiating practices. The more complicated question is what that improvement should entail.
As midday arrived on the morning after, the mourning city had cleaned itself. The trash had disappeared. The streets had been washed. Although deflated in spirit, New Orleans sparkled again.
But you knew better. The dirt of an otherwise wonderful NFC championship game remains, and no matter what the NFL does to try to make up for it, this is the game sometimes. Sports, played and overseen by flawed humans, are messy.