Heartbreak Again

Rick Sarro Friday, February 8, 2019 Comments Off on Heartbreak Again
Heartbreak Again

The many intriguing story lines for Super Bowl LIII will surely outnumber the number of streets named Peach this or that in the city of Atlanta.

Two first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, were finally dueling for the Lombardi Trophy, Brady being the G.O.A.T. and Brees G.O.A.T. 1-A.

It was the defensive genius of Bill Bilichick versus the offensive savant Sean Payton.

Who Dat nation invaded the stomping grounds of their arch-rival Falcons in search of …

What? Are you telling me neither the Football Gods nor the Lords of the NFL in New York could end the insanity and somehow reverse what was clearly the league’s most embarrassing injustice in playoff history?

I must still be groggy after falling head over heels late in the fourth quarter of the Saints versus Rams NFC title game.  

Did the NFL actually award Los Angeles the George Halas NFC Championship Trophy, sending the Rams to the Super Bowl instead of the Saints?

Papa Bear must have turned over in his grave at the site of this one in the SuperDome.

Fairness, accuracy and just plain getting it right has no place in the NFL. It’s a league that still doesn’t know what a catch is, much less what constitutes pass interference.

The sideline pass to Tommylee Lewis and the ensuing head shot wipeout by Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman will surely go down in the Saints’ video archives under the heading of “What in the world just happened?” — right next to the “Minneapolis Miracle” and the scores of Hail Mary defeats suffered by this franchise in its long 51 year history.    

With under two minutes in regulation, the Saints are driving and threatening to score the game-winning points as Brees floats what appears to be a perfect pass toward Lewis near the Rams 5-yard line.  With the pass arching downwards, Robey-Coleman, oblivious of the ball’s location, launches a helmet to helmet hit on Lewis as both go crashing to the ground.

It was the most obvious pass interference play in the history of the forward pass that anyone has ever seen … except for the three referees on the field at the time, all of whom had a clear and unobstructed view of the play.

As the Superdome’s sellout crowd erupted with anticipation of first and goal and near victory, the unexplainable happened.

No flag was thrown.

Three experienced refs, handpicked as the elite in their profession to call a conference championship game on national television … all three failed to see what the rest of the world saw, including the NFL’s head honchos in New York.

I was thinking surely one of the refs got his hand stuck in his pocket and a flag would come flying out late. Justice would be served. Insanity avoided.

But there was no flag on the Dome’s turf. 

Saints coach Sean Payton, every vein in his head visible, was livid as he chased down any referee in sight, screaming in utter anger over the non-call. He didn’t have to go very far to find an official, as three were within yards of the most controversial play of the season by far. 

The men in stripes waved off Payton as quickly as they waved off the play, as if nothing happened but a standard incompletion.

This was no ordinary incompletion in just an ordinary game at an inconsequential time.

This pass, this interference, this decision cost the Saints the opportunity to advance to Super Bowl 53. It altered the Hall of Fame legacy of Payton and Brees as they were a blink or two away from a hard fought second Super Bowl appearance.

So gut-wrenchingly unfair.

It robbed every Saints player, coach and team executive who works their entire career for that rare chance at winning a championship. It was all snatched away by someone’s incompetence.

If you don’t believe me, then maybe Robey-Coleman himself will convince you.

“In my mind, yes, I thought I was going to get flagged in that split-second. But then I got up and they said it was incomplete. I was about to go crazy, and was saying, ‘that is good.’ I thought that would have been a flag and they would have scored on the next play,” Robey-Coleman admitted after the game.

He is right about its being a penalty, of course, but wrong about the Saints’ scoring plans. With Los Angeles armed with only one time out and the Saints awarded first and 10, Brees would have run the clock down to a few seconds. And if they did not run the ball in for the game-winning touchdown, they would have simply settled for a short game-clinching field goal and let the celebration begin.

New Orleans had no choice but to have Wil Lutz kick a fourth down 31-yard field goal for a 23-20 lead — but with 1:41 still on the clock for the Rams.

Many NFL apologists, both media types and players themselves, will argue the Saints should have cinched their pads tighter and kept the Rams from kicking a 48-yard field goal to tie it in regulation, and stopped L.A. from converting a 57-yard kick to win the game in overtime.

But such arguments would never be mounted in the first place if the NFL would hire, train, and, most importantly, monitor competent referees. And second to that, the league should weed out and fire the incompetent refs, whose numbers are swelling … if this season is any indication.

All year, refs have botched calls and missed easily seen plays — either by being woefully out of position, too out of shape to be in the right position or just uncertain of what the correct call should be.

The NFL has continually issued Monday morning roll calls apologizing about the fact that this ref screwed up that penalty or that crew got this play wrong.

“Sorry guys, we know we blew it. And sorry you lost the game because of it.”

Sean Payton got that call soon after the loss in the NFC Championship game. The NFL admitted the refs missed two penalties on the infamous non-call play — pass interference and hitting a defenseless receiver in the helmet.

You think?

Side judge Gary Cavaletto was just a few feet from Lewis on the sideline pass. How on earth did he not see and judge that as pass interference? But there was no flag from Cavaletto.

Back judge ref Todd Prukop was also in view of the play from another clear angle near the end zone. How could he not view it as an illegal helmet to the head hit? But there was no flag from Prukop.

Head referee Bill Vinovich was in position and had a clear line of sight to the ball, the receiver and the early high hit. Why didn’t he resort to his years of experience and knowledge to see Lewis knocked off his feet with the pass in flight and make the correct call? But there was no flag from Vinovich, who was quoted after the game, saying, “it was a judgement call by the covering official. I personally have not seen the play.”

But he did see the play and the aftermath of Lewis flying through the air from the helmet hit. Why didn’t he intercede, and at least gather his officiating crew and have the sense to overturn the decision on the field.  

Referees change calls all the time during games; they even change infractions as subjective as pass interference. But this one was not subjective. It was clear as any call in the history of the game. Even Commissioner Roger Goodell would admit to that.

“It was simple. They blew the call.” Payton explained what NFL officials said to him via a post-game phone call. “It should never have not been a call. They said not only was it interference, it was helmet to helmet.

“Listen, it’s a hard job for those guys (game refs) because it’s happening fast. But I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call than that. Here it is in the NFC Championship game. Tough one to shallow.”

 When asked about what the game refs told him as he was yelling for a flag, Payton said, “normal stuff; hey, we talked and arrived at the same decision.”

Payton was incredulous about how two referees could see the same thing that he and the rest of the country saw and come to their conclusion of no penalty.

In an odd twist of irony, it seems fans in Los Angeles started a petition drive last week to have the NFL remove Vinovich from the NFC title game because the Rams were 0-8 with him as head referee during their games since 2012. Even L.A. had doubts about this knucklehead.

There are legitimate questions and concerns over Cavaletto and Prukop even being assigned to Rams games, and in particular one with the Super Bowl at stake, seeing these two refs both live in Southern California not far from Los Angeles.

I’m not a conspiracy nut, but let’s use common sense and eliminate any chance of impropriety or favoritism in forming referee crews and game assignments. According to league stats, Vinovich’s normal crew averaged a league low 13.1 flags per game this season. Read into that what you will.

It doesn’t look good when two refs, both from the L.A. area, come up blind to such an obvious game-changing penalty, favoring the Rams.

Now that the NFL has officially stated their officials “messed it up” in such a high-profile fashion with the Super Bowl on the line, both Cavaletto and Prukop should be fired.  

Vinovich, who was the head referee during the 2015 Super Bowl between New England and Seattle, should also be canned. No if, ands or buts.

If you can’t see the play and pull the flag on something that blatantly obvious and egregious, then you should not be calling games in the NFL. Go back to high school or junior college games and relearn the craft.

The NFL needs to man up and tell these weak link officials there is no place for them at the highest level of the game.

Let’s go one step further. It’s time for the NFL to get serious about two of its most serious penalties. I have the simple solution for targeting/helmet to helmet calls and pass interference.

If league officials in New York are monitoring each game, then they should be capable of stepping in and alerting game refs who missed helmet to helmet hits or questionable pass interference plays that they are under further review and quick reversals could be forthcoming.

There is no need for head coaches to toss out challenge flags and lose time outs or slow the game down. New York will communicate with the on-field head ref and notify him that a play is deemed “questionable.”

I think Payton is now motivated to see a change.

“We all want to get it right,” he said after the crushing loss to the Rams.  “I mean we have the technology to speed things up. Look, I’m on the competition committee, so hopefully that provides a voice. Man, I hope no other team has to lose a game the way we lost that one today. It’s disappointing.”

Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who saw his chance at two Super Bowls disappear with last season’s “Minneapolis Miracle” versus the Vikings, and now the no-call versus the Rams, admits games will never be perfectly officiated. But maybe there is a solution.

“You could talk about a solution potentially being replaying certain types of penalties; maybe ones that you say are pretty black and white in regards to whether it was or wasn’t. Obviously if they were replaying pass interference or whether someone was hit early before the ball even got there, then I’m sure that would’ve been reviewed today. It would have been found that it was a PI (pass interference). But it wasn’t.”

No, it wasn’t, and the NFL should be ashamed.

Vinovich and his entire crew should be ashamed and embarrassed.

Rams coach Sean McVay should apologize for his statement that the non-call play “was a competitive play.  I thought the refs let the guys compete within the framework of the rules, and that is what NFL football is about.”

I doubt young McVay would be so flippant or forgiving if the tables were turned. His time will most assuredly come, as it does for most NFL head coaches. The league and the refs will see to that.

Saints fans, who are so heavily invested in this team making the Superdome the best home field advantage in the NFL, have now endured and suffered through two heartbreaking playoff losses in back to back years.

A 13-3 regular season and a No. 1 NFC seed this season may have quelled the memories and pain from the Minnesota miss. I’m not sure how and when Who Dat Nation will get over this. 

It’s been nine years since the Saints’ first and last trip to the Super Bowl. It’s a long and difficult journey for anyone to get there if you’re not a Patriot or named Brady. Brees, who tried to put on a positive veneer about returning to the task next season, said it best … “I’m not getting any younger.”

Don’t expect apologies from referees Cavaletto, Prukop or Vinovich. It wouldn’t matter anyway.

The heartache and injustice are done and they are to blame.

Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.


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