Playoff Heartbreaker … Again

Rick Sarro Thursday, January 23, 2020 Comments Off on Playoff Heartbreaker … Again
Playoff Heartbreaker … Again

The ineptitude and inconsistency of the NFL referees struck again in the Superdome and again cost the New Orleans Saints dearly.

The ineptitude and inconsistency of the NFL’s head of officiating struck again from New York and again cost the Saints dearly.

This ineptitude and inconsistency have so weighed on head coach Sean Payton over the past two years it became clear after yet another controversial playoff ending he did not have the strength or conviction to even address it or mount an argument in his post-game press conference. He has finally come to the stark realization it would do no good even to try.

I have the sense that Payton must feel his criticism and crusade against lousy game officiating has resulted in a covert backlash by the NFL against the Saints. A secret chamber of high ranking suits buried deep inside the league offices on Park Avenue is waiting for the opportune time to stab their own Who Dat voodoo doll in the back, and that time is clearly in the post-season.

Is my imagination running away with me?

Has my penchant for conspiracies run amok?

Am I too emotionally invested in the Saints to see things objectively?

Yes to all of the above.  

Three straight years of this playoff heartbreak will do that to you. It has driven me off the reservation and made me void of a clear mind.


But there are many who believe as I do that the game’s treasured credibility is being damaged by the NFL’s abhorrent officiating over the last decade.

I would bet over half of the NFL’s 32 teams have lost regular season or playoff games, titles or possible pathways to a championship venue because of lousy refs, mind-blowing calls, an absence of flags or just a complete misapplication of the rules and game procedure. 

Payton and the majority of head coaches and general managers finally stood up and yelled, “I’m mad as hell and can’t take this anymore,” during the league’s off-season meetings after the infamous NOLA No Call debacle that occurred in the NFC Championship game between the Saints and Rams last January.

That resulted in a series of complicated rule changes — when does the NFL do anything that’s not complicated? — regarding offensive and defensive pass interference.

In short, the changes gave coaches the ability to challenge a pass interference call or lack thereof during the game except in the final two minutes. That honor goes directly to the all-knowing head of league officials Mr. Al Riveron in New York.

This season, it didn’t take Payton and his coaching brethren very long to realize the review refs were not going to overturn many of their pass interference challenges and make their on-field officials look like idiots.

The head coaches became twitchy about pulling the red flags out for PI at the risk of losing valuable time-outs.

 This condensed background all leads up to the NFC Wildcard matchup in the Super Dome between Minnesota and New Orleans.  

 They are two teams with a rich and dramatic playoff history dating back to 2010, and the whole “BountyGate” and beat down of then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC title game in New Orleans. 

And, of course, there was the unbelievable Minneapolis Miracle of 2017, when a Marcus Williams whiff sent the Vikings’ Stefon Diggs 61 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the final 10 seconds of the NFC divisional playoff.

You can think of the recent playoff game as something like a rubber match between these two teams.

The questionable officiating began early in the game and it was unbiased in its failings.

A missed illegal motion call on Minnesota ended with a Vikings fumble and recovery by New Orleans safety Vonn Bell. That led to a first quarter Saints field goal and an early 3-0 lead.  

If the refs see and make the correct motion call, the play is stopped, the fumble never happens nor does the field goal.

A blindside block penalty on a long Saints punt return that was anything but a blindside hit cost New Orleans 30 yards in valuable field position.

That sounds innocent enough, right? It forced another 3 and out by the Saints’ offense, which was pretty dormant for three quarters. But Minnesota’s next possession after that penalty ended with a Dalvin Cook push toward the endzone that was clearly stopped short of the goal line.

Every angle provided by the Fox cameras, in particular the high wire roof cam, revealed that the football never crossed the plane. Riveron and his review refs in New York did not reverse the touchdown call on the field and Minnesota took a 20-10 lead in the third quarter.

These mishaps set the stage for the overtime mack daddy blunder.

The Vikings were at the Saints’ 4 yard line, third and goal. Quarterback Kirk Cousins lofted a fade pass to 6-feet, 6-inch tight end Kyle Rudolph in the corner of the endzone. Rudolph caught the ball over the 6-foot P.J. Williams for the game-winning score in overtime.

Saints’ defenders and coaches begin pointing at the giant video screens, which were showing in clear, high-def replays, Rudolph extending his arm and pushing Williams backwards to gain separation and make the touchdown grab.

No flag was thrown by either of the two refs in position to see it was offensive pass interference because, well, offensive pass interference is rarely flagged.

Remember, Payton can’t challenge. But he knows every scoring play is reviewed by New York City.

Replay after replay shows the larger Rudolph pushing Williams away before the floating pass falls into his hands.

In less than a minute, Riveron and his cronies say they were able to look at every possible video angle from the Fox cameras and did not see that the extended arm and push by Rudolph constituted a foul or offensive pass interference.

Remember, this is a playoff game in the Louisiana SuperDome one year after the infamous and most egregious no call in NFL history that occurred in this very stadium. It was the apparent game-winning play in overtime involving the Saints and Vikings and all that aforementioned drama.

Riveron was able to study and dissect every multiple angle of the catch in a minute or less to come up with his conclusion that there was not offensive pass interference.

Before any of the players, coaches and fans could let the magnitude of the quick review sink in, everyone was walking and looking around, finally realizing the game was over, and the Saints had lost their second straight playoff game in overtime that involved a no call — or at least a review and no reversal.

How on earth did Riveron and the review refs in league headquarters apply a diligent and thorough review and discussion of the final game-winning play — in overtime, mind you — in less than 60 seconds? That is beyond my comprehension and logical thinking.

These same knuckleheads took upwards of five minutes to determine a damn catch on an inconsequential 10- yard reception during a regular season game in September between the Bengals and Browns.

Less than 60 seconds on a questionable playoff-winning catch in overtime in the Super Dome. Wham bam thank you, Sean. You lose again.

And I’m the conspiracy nut?

Here is the NFL’s official postgame exchange between Riveron and the media pool reporter who questioned him after the game. 

Warning: you may need a barf bag while reading this.

“We looked at all of the angles that Fox afforded us and Fox gave us some great views. There is contact by both players, but none of that contact rises to the level of a foul. This is consistent with what we have done all year long; we left the ruling on the field. We let it stand,” Riveron said.

Pool reporter: “It seemed like you guys did this process pretty quickly. It was obviously clear enough in that short of a span that you felt comfortable with what was called?”

Riveron: “Yes, Fox was great.  They gave us every angle that they had pertaining to that play. So we’re very comfortable with what we saw. Nothing came through afterward that we had not seen prior to making the ruling.”

There was no explanation or argument from Riveron that Rudolph’s arm extension and push did not give him an advantage on the play. 

I came away thinking Riveron should be on News Corp’s (parent company of the Fox Network) payroll as much as he raved about and complimented Fox and their camera work.

Whatever rulebook Riveron used, his understanding and interpretation of offensive pass interference differs greatly from two veteran refs, who stated on social media that Rudolph should have been flagged and the game should have continued with more overtime play.

Twenty-year veteran official John Parry tweeted, “the last play of Vikings and Saints is OPI. By written rule and on-field philosophy. Receiver clearly created an advantage. If called and reviewed, it stands. The consistent standard for creating an overturn remains a topic.”

Terry McAulay, another 20-plus-year retired NFL ref, wrote “… it’s illegal for an offensive player to extend his arm or arms and create clear separation from the defender. That was offensive pass interference.”

Why can’t these guys get together on the rules and how to apply them, either with on-field calls or with the more deliberate review process?

Two refs say a push to gain advantageous separation from a defender is unequivocally offensive pass interference.  

Rudolph extended his arm and pushed Williams backward. Why didn’t Riveron and his review bobble heads in New York see it the same way?

Why do these questionable and controversial officiating calls continue to plague the Saints at the most costly times?

Is it simply coincidence?

Bad luck? 

A two-year playoff curse?

Or could it be that black op, underground, covert chamber exerting payback on Payton and the Saints for causing so much trouble and bad PR for the NFL?

I have to wonder why Commissioner Roger Goodell chose to steer clear of New Orleans for the opening playoff round. I can’t prove it, but I bet Goodell followed a W.C. Fields saying — “I’d rather be in Philadelphia” — which is where he was for the Seahawks and Eagles Wildcard game.

There goes my wild, crazy and convoluted thinking again.

What else am I to do when this keeps happening with the same characters involved, minus head ref Bill Vinovich, who was the official crew chief for the NOLA No Call incident.

I find it curious and conspicuous that neither Payton, Mickey Loomis nor any of the Saints players I could find have questioned the no call or bogus review process.

Not one peep.

Everything coming from Payton and the locker room has been a mishmash of “the Vikings made more plays than we did.”

Well, that’s true, they did. From Dalvin Cook’s 94 yards rushing to Alvin Kamara’s puny 21 yards on the ground. And there was Minnesota’s constant pressure on Drew Brees; his first fumble of the season; and his first interception in six games.

Even the always sure-footed Will Lutz missed a costly 43-yard field goal that is usually a chip shot for him.

Taysom Hill’s heroic passing and running notwithstanding, the Saints offense didn’t find any tempo, rhythm and success against Minnesota’s rough and tough front seven until the fourth quarter.

A mistake by Kamara on a quick spike play with under 30 secs to play in regulation that caused a penalty and Payton’s decision to run off 10 seconds by rule and not burn his last time out to save those seconds will be a topic of discussion.

And another late-game break down in coverage by the secondary finally turned Cousins into the Viking hero he so desperately desired to be.  

 All that being said, a second straight playoff game in the Super Dome, with so much at stake, should not have ended so abruptly, with another heart-breaking series of plays, while incompetent NFL referees on the ground and in New York stood idly by.

The journey to the Super Bowl is arduous enough. The Saints should not have to overcome officials who can’t agree on their own rule book or don’t have the guts to called a foul even on an apparent game-winning play.

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.

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