Saints’ Season At Stake
Let me take a crack at a few headlines you may or may not have seen this week following another marred Saints-Rams game.
“Refs 2, Saints 0”
“Dead Ball … Brain Dead”
“Incomplete … More Like Incompetent”
“Scoop, Score … Sorry”
As if last season’s NFC Championship game with the infamous NOLA No Call wasn’t bad enough, another blown call by the referees must have felt like piling on for the Saints, Sean Payton and the Who Dat nation.
Fortunately, neither Bill Vinovich nor any of his NFC title game officials crew was anywhere in sight.
Once again, the NFL won’t do anything besides admitting the refs blew it again — much as the NFL’S head of officiating did when the referees made a clock mistake in the Saints game against Houston in the season opener.
Once again, the Saints are left with a loss against the Rams that could affect possible playoff seedings in the NFC and the season going forward.
Right after the blown call Sunday at the L.A. Coliseum, Payton was overheard yelling on the sidelines that he was “tired of dealing with this” and he “was tired of being on the bad end of these calls.”
In his post-game media comments Payton said he can’t control “poor officiating” and “bad calls.”
But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can control it and should stop deflecting with double talk and put his foot down with either referee suspensions or firings.
We’ve heard it before — the refs are human and humans make mistakes. But this is the second straight Saints game in which the officials didn’t apply the proper rule to the situation.
In the Texans game, the league office said the refs should have put 15 seconds back on the game clock during that second quarter play. And again the NFL suits in New York ruled the refs erred in blowing the whistle and calling a dead ball on a clear fumble by Rams quarterback Jared Goff as he was attempting a pass under pressure.
The bouncing ball, which by the letter of the rules was a fumble, was scooped up by the Saints’ Cam Jordan and returned 87 yards for an apparent go-ahead touchdown.
The game’s head referee Walt Anderson, with decades of experience, wrongly ruled it was a dead ball because the whistle was blown. A Saints challenge got a reversal from incompletion to fumble, but because of the erroneous dead ball whistle, Anderson ruled a fumble recovery by New Orleans at their own 13 yardline.
No touchdown. No 10-3 lead for the Saints.
Payton went ballistic again screaming for Anderson, who just told the beleaguered Payton they blew the play dead and walked away.
Jordan went to the sidelines lamenting he “just ran 80 yards for nothing.”
Well, I wouldn’t say for nothing, because Jordan’s 87-yard romp will be replayed ad nauseum and the NFL will once again have to find creative ways to explain another referee blunder and another round of embarrassing incompetence from an officiating crew that didn’t appear to be spring chickens and new at their jobs.
NFL Films can produce a 30-minute low-light reel of blown calls, officiating gaffes and blunderheaded absurd mistakes inflicted on the game by the elite of football refs. And yet the NFL does nothing of substance to improve their beloved game integrity and takes no real action to hold substandard officials accountable.
By the way, Payton and the Saints would have starring roles in the film.
Unlike the pass interference no call in the Saints-Rams NFC Championship game, this goof on Sunday occurred in the second quarter of a tied game and did not decide the final outcome, as the blown call did in that January game that sent the Rams to the Super Bowl.
What it did, though, was take precious points that the Saints’ defense earned and the offense was having a difficult time mustering off the scoreboard.
It was a cruel and abrupt change in the game’s momentum. It clearly upset Payton, who had to fight off thoughts of déjà vu and get his head straight to resume calling plays.
All this was a backdrop to a more pressing problem. Star quarterback and offensive savant Drew Brees was pacing the sidelines with a scowl on his face while he nursed an injured thumb on his throwing hand. The 40-year-old Brees jammed his thumb against the paw of Rams defensive demon Aaron Donald midway through the first quarter.
With that valuable right thumb taped, Brees could be seen twitching his fingers in some form of early self-rehab. He did not return to action, as Payton said Brees could not grip the football without severe pain.
Brees was scheduled to see a hand specialist in Los Angeles Monday before joining the team in Seattle, where they are set to face the 2-0 Seahawks. After the Rams game, Brees was wearing a more elaborate hand brace which drew speculation that there might be ligament damage to the thumb.
“I really don’t know at this point,” Brees explained after getting an X-ray following the Rams game. “There’s only so much you can do here other than having a doc look at it on the sideline. I’m going to see a hand specialist, get his opinion and we’ll see what the next steps are.”
The future Hall of Fame quarterback overcame a severe shoulder injury early in his 19-year career; a strained oblique muscle; and a knee sprain; but has only missed one game due to injury while on an active roster. Brees knows his body well, undergoing year-round training. He may have cast a pall over the situation by saying, “this felt like it was something a bit more significant.”
By Tuesday or Wednesday, it was expected that the Saints would have a diagnosis on Brees’ thumb injury and playing status.
So the fear and dread for the team, coaches, management and Saints fans — a Brees injury forcing him to the bench for an extended period of time — is now the harsh reality. This appears to be the most serious setback for No. 9 since his torn shoulder labrum and rotator cuff. This is evident from the simple fact that Brees could not even pick up a football on the sidelines after the injury. “Yeah I’m concerned. I am hoping it’s not too significant,” he told reporters after the game.
This is why Payton and GM Mickey Loomis were aggressive in courting and re-signing Teddy Bridgewater, who was a free agent after last season. Bridgewater rejected an offer from the Miami Dolphins to re-sign with New Orleans and continue his role of understudy to Brees.
Now the position and still potent offense is Bridgewater’s to command. Those three and a half quarters in the losing effort to the Rams are the most he has played in a regular season game since his knee injury as a Viking four years ago. Bridgewater was solid but not spectacular in L.A., finishing with 17 of 30 passes for 165 yards and a 72 quarterback rating.
To be fair, the fire and fury of a real game is much faster and more intense than practice or preseason action. It will take some time for him to acclimate himself to being a starter. He didn’t get much help from any corners of the offense around him, though. The offensive line was badly beaten up front by the Rams, prompting Payton to say watching the game film will be painful.
A huge part of that pain and Payton’s wrath will be those 11 penalties for 87 yards that continually pushed the offense back and halted any chance for success.
Dropped passes and a running game that garnered a puny 57 yards on the ground buried Bridgewater behind the chains. Starting guard Andrus Peat left the game with an ankle injury. After the third quarter injury to Taquan Smith, the offense was down to two healthy receivers. Even though he was thrown into a tough sand box on the road, Bridgewater’s penchant for holding onto the ball too long and not moving effectively in the pocket to avoid duress didn’t help his cause.
Payton will be patient to a point with Bridgewater. He has a lot of confidence in the 26-year-old former All Pro. But Payton knows he has another viable option in Taysom Hill, who he readily calls the next Steve Young (Former 49ers Super Bowl-winning and Hall of Fame quarterback).
Payton, Loomis, Ms. Benson, the players and even the water boys knew the mastery of Brees would not last forever.
I’m not sure the rabid Who Dat fans would admit that, though. They have seen Brees come back every year, every game for 13 years straight and probably figured he was good for another 13.
So, how do you replace the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and completion percentage along with a slew of other records on a team considered a Super Bowl favorite from the NFC?
I’m sure Payton had a plan tucked away in his mind, but wasn’t planning on using it so soon.
Let’s just hope the doctors give Brees and the Saints a thumbs up on a quick return to action.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL. Check local listings.