Football Needs Blown Calls

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To head off the inevitable whataboutism: Yes, the Rams got hosed too, by multiple missed penalties. But none of those were as blatant, as obvious in realtime, or as directly would have changed the outcome of the game, as the missed pass interference by Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman on Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis. The NFL will long remember this as one of the worst blown calls in playoff history. But will it do anything to stop it from happening again?

Saints fans, certainly, are not about to forget this. (I give it two years until you’re so sick of hearing about it from them that you become glad it happened.) In a statement released Monday, team owner Gayle Benson thanked the players and the fans for an excellent season, but led with and spent the bulk of the statement on complaining about that call:

Yesterday’s result is still difficult to accept for all of us. I am thoroughly disappointed by the events that led to the outcome of yesterday’s game. Getting to the Super Bowl is incredibly difficult to do and takes such an unbelievable commitment from a team and support from its fans. No team should ever be denied the opportunity to reach the title game (or simply win a game) based on the actions, or inactions, of those charged with creating a fair and equitable playing field. As is clear to all who watched the game, it is undeniable that our team and fans were unfairly deprived of that opportunity yesterday. I have been in touch with the NFL regarding yesterday’s events and will aggressively pursue changes in NFL policies to ensure no team and fan base is ever put in a similar position again. It is a disservice to our coaches, players, employees and, most importantly, the fans who make our game possible. The NFL must always commit to providing the most basic of expectations - fairness and integrity.


“Fairness” and “integrity,” however, are not synonyms. Everyone would like the game to be fair, which would mean eliminating at least the clearest of incorrect calls. Integrity, however, also connotes a sport that is undiminished or unimpaired, by, say, the countless and endless reviews that marred dramatic moments in both conference championship games. Integrity may mean letting football remain football, missed calls and all, rather than letting it become replayball.

The NFL is going to talk about it, at least. A league source says the competition committee will this offseason discuss the possibility of adding pass interference calls to the list of plays eligible for replay review. Another report says there’s at least some support on the committee to add roughing-the-passer and defenseless-player calls. This is not a new topic of discussion for the committee—Bill Belichick has long been a proponent of making every type of play reviewable. But there may be more support this year, especially given that Sean Payton is on the committee.


But there’s also apparently a sense that changing the rules would invite more problems than solutions.


In his “explanation” of the missed call on Sunday, referee Bill Vinovich noted that the lack of a flag was “a judgment call.” That’s hard to swallow when you look at the specific play, but it’s a big problem in the long run.

This blown call was glaring. It was obviously incorrect, to anyone watching, even without the benefit of slow-motion or multiple angles. But it was an outlier. Most pass interference calls are less immediately clear—they are, in every sense of the term, judgment calls. On how many pass plays would a close examination reveal mutual handfighting, or a little push-off by the receiver, or even just minimal contact that violates the letter of the law but not what we currently consider its spirit? On most of them? Would officials be able to reverse a DPI call into an OPI? Would they be willing? These are real questions, and they are thorny enough that it may not even be worth trying to work out the answers through praxis..


It is a paradox common to all replay controversies that events, when viewed in slow-motion, become increasingly divorced from their realities at life speed, that objective observation is impossible on a scale so alien to the situation in which they actually occurred. Pass interference may simply be one of those types of plays where an official’s judgment—of whether a defender interfered with a receiver’s ability to catch a thrown football—is generally more correct in realtime than it would be with all the trappings of technology.

It just didn’t happen to be that way this time. But preventing future occurrences of this relatively rare situation would create many, many more new problems. At a certain point, football has to be left imperfect, and, yes, a little unfair, if you want it to remain football. Not that that’s any consolation to the Saints.