The talk of Super Bowl week is not the everlasting excellence of the New England Patriots. It's not the sideline wizardry of the boy-wonder coach of the Los Angeles Rams, Sean McVay. It is, much to the NFL's dismay, the sport's officiating crisis.
A season's worth of frustrations by fans, players and coaches bubbled over with the missed pass interference call in the NFC championship game that sent the Rams, not the New Orleans Saints, to Super Bowl LIII to face the Patriots on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The NFL may have hoped, with an off week for the consternation to dissipate, that one of the most consequential officiating gaffes in league history would be on its way by now to being a fading memory.
It's not. The venting and head-scratching are ongoing while many wonder what should be done to fix what appears, more than ever, to be a broken system.
"How could you miss that?" former NFL linebacker London Fletcher said this week. Fletcher was asked whether he could have handled, as a player, losing such a consequential game on a botched call like that and replied: "I could not. That would be devastating. You won't get over that. Ever."
But as the league contemplates its next steps in reaction to the officiating travesty in New Orleans, former NFL referee Gene Steratore warned that the league's leaders must be careful.
"The outlying play that this is - that we all agree on, everyone - it can be corrected in a lot of ways," Steratore said. "But opening up an entirely new system based on an outlier has to be thought through."
Steratore, now a rules analyst for CBS, was in Kansas City for the Chiefs-Patriots matchup in the AFC championship game but managed to see the Rams-Saints ending on TV. When the officials failed to throw a flag for the blatant pass interference and illegal hit committed by the Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman on the Saints' Tommylee Lewis in the final two minutes of regulation, Steratore said his immediate thoughts focused on empathy for referee Bill Vinovich and his crew at the Superdome.
"The human element of it, what the officials on the field would be experiencing in real time," Steratore said.
One thing the officials could have done, Steratore said, was to have huddled on the field to discuss the play. But once that didn't happen, there was no safety net for the crew and for the NFL's officiating department at the league office, headed by Al Riveron. Pass interference is not subject to review by instant replay, so there was no way for the non-call to be overturned.
The league's competition committee plans to give increased consideration, during its annual offseason deliberations, to making pass interference reviewable by replay.
"I do believe that the league can do a better job embracing technology in officiating," said Amy Trask, the former chief executive officer of the Oakland Raiders. "Technology has evolved far faster than has the league adapting officiating to that technology. . . . I mean, for [measuring] first downs, we're still using two sticks and a chain. . . . [But] it's not going to solve everything. There's still going to be error. That's the nature of the game."
Trask said she is always wary of the potential unintended consequences of any prospective rule change but is nevertheless intrigued by the notion of adding a video official to each crew, stationed by a monitor on site at the game.
"That official can quickly say, 'You better take a look at this.' Or, 'Oops, we've got to check that.' Or, 'Wow, you missed that,' " Trask said. "Fair enough. Do it fast. Do it on a real-time basis."
Fletcher said he would make a greater range of calls, including interference and illegal hits, subject to potential review via the current system of replay challenges by coaches.
"I would open a lot of penalties to be challenged," Fletcher said. "Hits on a defenseless receiver, that would be one more so than pass interference. Those hits on a defenseless receiver affect the game far more often than the pass interference penalties."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has in the past proposed making any call or non-call on the field subject to review by replay, with the constraint that coaches only have a fixed number of replay challenges per game (the current limit is two per team, with the potential for a third). The competition committee always has resisted making judgment calls by officials subject to replay review. But some teams have favored an expansion of the scope of plays that are reviewable, and the Rams-Saints non-call could bolster such sentiment.
Steratore said he does not favor making pass interference reviewable. Even on replay, he said, it would be a subjective ruling. He would, however, be in favor of making illegal hits subject to replay review. Adding one on-field official to the current seven-person crews should also be considered, he said.
Kevin Demoff, the executive vice president of football operations for the Rams, said his team actually has been in favor of the expanded use of replay. But Demoff said the league and owners should take a broader look at officiating and do all they can to give the officials the tools necessary to succeed. That could include, in addition to potential replay tweaks, finding a training league for young officials or providing virtual-reality simulators to train officials.
"A lot of the solutions we're talking about these days are reactive, which is unfortunate," Demoff said. "I would rather us get together as a league and be proactive and try to prevent the next missed call, whether that's a chop block in a key moment of the season opener or a holding call in Week 8 or any other big call. This one obviously gets magnified. But I think at the end of the day, it's about going back to the beginning, sitting down with [the NFL's] football operations and all the teams and figuring out how we get better as a league."
Steratore said the complexity of the NFL rule book these days has made it "more challenging" but not impossible for officials. He cited turnover among referees, those officials in charge of each crew, and some rule changes, such as the new lowering-the-helmet penalty and an early-season emphasis on roughing-the-passer calls, as additional challenges for this season. But he said he does not accept the notion that NFL officiating was worse than ever.
"I think the scrutiny enhances every season," Steratore said. "I think the game does get harder to work. As an officiating group, four referees did retire and move on last year, which was a big number. . . . They also were asked to referee some things that were really hard to start. So I think the combination of all those things brought maybe more attention to officiating earlier in the season. . . . But I don't think it's been any worse than it has [been] in years past."
Sunday's Super Bowl officiating crew will be under enormous pressure, but Steratore, the referee for last season's Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl, said that's always the case - missed call in New Orleans or no missed call in New Orleans.
"The pressure that comes with working this game," Steratore said, "nothing can enhance it any more than the initial pressure. . . . There's always a microscope."