There is some sympathy for New Orleans coach Sean Payton over an officiating gaffe in the NFC championship game Sunday that cost the Saints a chance to win the Super Bowl.
But there won’t be much.
Those days are over, because officiating in the NFL has been poor for a long time and will remain that way until some changes are made.
So, when I watch an NFL game, I expect the outcome to be determined by about ten plays made by the players, four or five failed or successful coaching strategies and three to four questionable calls made by the officials.
Some fans have a different perspective, especially when it comes to the officials, because of their investment in their favorite teams, but Sunday’s NFL conference championship games fit my script.
They were exciting, competitive and featured some of the league’s best coaches. There were two eventual Hall of Fame quarterbacks competing in the Saints’ Drew Brees and the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady and two bright, young signal-callers in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff.
But both games were marred by poor officiating, especially the non-calls on the pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact late in regulation that likely would have sealed a victory for New Orleans over the Rams.
By now, you’ve seen the replay in which Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman hit Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis on a pass in the right flat deep in Rams territory. Robey-Coleman never looked for the ball and ran over Lewis, which should have resulted in a pass-interference penalty and/or helmet-to-helmet violation. Neither infraction was called.
Later, according to Payton, league officials told him that the officials missed the call. I guess that is supposed to make Payton feel better.
But it didn’t. Bet it didn’t help Kansas City coach Andy Reid sleep any better, either, after watching the officials call a phantom roughing-the-quarterback penalty on defensive linemen Chris Jones late in the game, which helped keep a New England drive alive and eventually led to a touchdown.
The officials just keep getting these calls wrong with or without instant replay. Poor officiating has been around as long as the games themselves, but in today’s game, every call is magnified and over-analyzed because of instant replay, camera angles and jumbotrons in stadiums.
But the league can do some things to help them out. Coaches should be allowed to challenge any penalty, not just certain ones.
And if they don’t agree to that, at least allow coaches to challenge pass-interference violations because those calls are having the biggest impact on the outcomes of games. That’s because the interpretation of the rule has varied from game to game, stadium to stadium and officiating crew to officiating crew.
As Payton stood at the podium Sunday, any former player or coach would sympathize with him. One year of hard work and the main goal of an entire organization were wiped away in virtually 30 seconds.
Yet at the same time, one play never decides the outcome of a game. As Payton pointed fingers at the officials, he needed to point them at himself for failing to run the ball and use up clock before the pass to Lewis.
Or he might need to go over his red-zone offense. Against teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, it’s OK to pull Brees for versatile performer Taysom Hill in certain situations, but not in the playoffs. The ball needed to be in the hands of Brees, the team’s best player, as much as possible.
The sequence delivered the Rams to the Super Bowl and subjected the Saints to a winter spent cursing the officiating crew, because a game in which the Rams earned their first Super Bowl berth as Angelenos since 1979 will be remembered for an official keeping a flag inside his pocket.
Reid had a similar situation with receiver Tyreek Hill, who had one catch for 42 yards and was targeted only three times. Reid should have known the Patriots were going to double-team Hill, so why not use Hill on some jet sweeps or screens? Maybe an end-around? How about using him in motion, which would allow him to get off the line of scrimmage cleanly?
On defense, the Chiefs tried to get pressure on Brady with their front four, and when that didn’t work, they stayed with it. Yes, they stayed with it, even on third-and-long situations late in the game.
The Chiefs-Patriots game reminded me of what I have seen so often in the last decade in the AFC. New England coach Bill Belichick was outcoaching another peer. He got pressure on Mahomes up the middle and moved him off his spot. He moved tight end Rob Gronkowski outside as a receiver and the Chiefs couldn’t stop him. He kept slot receiver Julian Edelman in motion, which allowed him to roam freely and dominate the middle of the field.
These were entertaining games. The teams were resilient as both games went to overtime, the first time that’s happened in NFL postseason history. The Saints were robbed by the officials, but the Rams also earned that right to play in the Super Bowl because of their toughness and Goff, who made some outstanding throws in the middle of the field late in the game.
There was compassion for Reid, who lost another big game, but an appreciation for Belichick and Brady. But these games still left a bad taste in your mouth because of the officiating.
Maybe there will be some officials who will get fired. Maybe the league will soften its stance on which violations can be challenged.