In what’s believed to be the first acknowledgment from an NFL official on the subject, league Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted Wednesday in Atlanta that there was a missed call at the end of the NFC championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints.
“It’s a play that should be called,” Goodell said of the no-call in the final minutes of the game, when Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman hit Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis.
The play set off an immediate firestorm of responses, mainly from angry Saints fans who felt they were robbed of a Super Bowl bid. That led to a discussion of how the NFL might change its procedure to prevent such a travesty from happening again.
Saints coach Sean Payton said immediately after the game that he spoke to NFL head of officials Al Riveron twice in the immediate aftermath, and the call could have been pass interference or helmet-to-helmet contact.
There was no call. The Saints took the lead shortly thereafter, but the Rams tied it in regulation and eventually won the game in overtime. They now are set to take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday.
The NFL did not issue any postgame statement, allowing Payton discussing Riveron’s phone calls as a substitute for that. Last week, Robey-Coleman was fined $26,739 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless receiver. He initially admitted after the game that he intentionally fouled Lewis, fearing that he otherwise would run for a touchdown had he caught the ball. Later, Robey-Coleman claimed that Drew Brees’ pass was tipped, which would have negated pass interference.
ESPN had reported that Goodell and other league officials personally called Payton and Saints owner Gayle Benson to explain that an error was made but that it was an official’s error and, essentially, nothing could be done to rectify things. Goodell was asked what his communication was with Payton, but the commissioner declined to get into details.
“We addressed this immediately after the game,” Goodell said. “We spoke to Coach [Payton]. Coach announced the conversation and the fact that this play should have been called, and we had several conversations with those clubs and other officials over the next several days.
“That’s our process. That’s what we always do, particularly with judgment calls. It was handled no differently, other than to make sure we listened and communicated that to the officials.”
There has been ample discussion since the non-call about what changes might be made to improve officiating – especially in big spots. And it wasn’t only the Robey-Coleman call that was missed in that game alone; on the previous drive, for instance, a face mask call should have gone against the Saints on a scramble by Rams quarterback Jared Goff on a drive in which they settled for a field goal.
But Goodell fell back on the concept that human error is a part of the game that likely isn’t changing for the better anytime soon. So those hoping for more review assistance might be disappointed with the commissioner’s words.
“The game of football is played on the field,” Goodell said. “Played by humans, coached by humans and officiated by humans, and that’s what our game is.
“We understand the disappointment of the Saints fans, organization and players. We understand that.”