Lawrence: The Fix Is In

The Saints didn't lose because of one missed call, Amy Lawrence says, but the NFL needs to repair its "broken system"

Amy Lawrence
January 23, 2019 - 11:58 am

USA Today Images


A blown call. A championship game hanging in the balance. A locker room that resembled a funeral. Frustrated coaches, players, and fans. An owner's plea for integrity. A national outcry. Desperate petitions. Brash billboards. Lawsuits against the Commissioner. A coroner's report listing blunt force trauma as the cause of "death." A giant dilemma. All from one measly missed passed interference penalty.
There is an emergency stipulation in the NFL rule book that allows Roger Goodell to overturn the results of a game when dire circumstances demand it. But it's not intended to bail out officials who completely whiff on one of the sport's biggest stages. If the Commissioner were to step in and declare the Rams' victory null and void, both teams would return to the scene of the "crime" and pick up with 1:48 remaining in the fourth quarter and the game tied at 20. However, read a little further to Article 2 of Rule 17, Section 2: "The Commissioner will not apply authority in cases of complaints by clubs concerning judgmental errors or routine errors of omission by game officials. Games involving such complaints will continue to stand as completed." That option is essentially off the table.
As much as it seemed like a lifeline initially, there's absolutely no way the NFL should suspend the NFC Championship. The game didn't end on the play in question. Not only did the Saints take the lead on a field goal seconds after the blown PI call, but they had the chance to prevent the Rams from moving into field goal range on their next drive. When they failed, the Saints had the first shot to score in overtime after they won the coin flip; but Drew Brees threw an interception.
The Saints lost for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the missing flag. They squandered their opportunities, going back to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter. They were only 2-of-5 in the red zone. Instead of rushing the ball to take time off the clock or force L.A. to use all of its timeouts late in the game, the Saints threw the ball twice from inside the 13-yard line. They left more than 90 seconds for the Rams to work with. The visitors deserve credit for stuffing the run (48 yards total for New Orleans) and containing the dangerous Michael Thomas. And what about Greg Zuerlein?? He nailed kicks from 48 and 57 yards to propel the Rams to their first Super Bowl since the 2001 season.
Championship Sunday featured a handful of missed calls, for and against each of the four teams in action. The NFL and its competition committee certainly can't overreact to each one. Human error IS part of the game. But with a trip to the Super Bowl hanging in the balance, the pass interference so BLATANT, and the national scrutiny uber-focused on this seminal moment, the league can't afford NOT to react...and not only to address the PR nightmare. The Commissioner and owners need to find a solution to a problem that's impossible to hide. With TV ratings rebounding in a major way this season, with the millions of eye balls who tune in for the playoffs, the NFL needs to protect its brand, its image, its reputation, and its integrity as suggested by Saints' owner Gayle Benson.
The idea of replay and review for pass interference penalties is not a new one. In the past, the league has been reluctant to expand replay to include judgment calls made by the officials, which is understandable. The referee and other crew members are paid for their expertise and experience; they go through an extensive training and grading regimen as employees of the NFL. To subject all of their judgement calls to review is to undermine their credibility. The league needs to stand by its officials and allow them to do their jobs. However, the high stakes and incredible urgency of the postseason require checks and balances. Why not get it right when you can??
Adding extra coaches' challenges to each game is the right fix. Hand every coach one more challenge flag, bringing the total to three per team per game, to be used in ANY situation at ANY time. Don't limit the scope of the challenges or render them useless in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime. Don't tie the third flag to a time-out; a coach shouldn't have to choose between challenging in a critical moment and managing the clock. Allowing judgement calls to be reviewed, both on site and in New York, gives the league a way to correct egregious mistakes and ensure outcomes are the result of a fair and level playing field. Capping the number of challenges forces a coaching staff to be smart, to rely on knowledge of the rules and critical thinking, and not get carried away by emotions in the heat of the moment. The NFL is committed to keeping games as close as possible to three hours in length; but with all the available technology, the reviews can be performed expeditiously, maybe by instituting a time limit similar to Major League Baseball.
Ironically, the competition committee includes Sean Payton, who was on the phone with the NFL's head of officiating, Al Riveron, moments after the Saints' stunning exit (for the second year in a row). The head coach says Riveron called him to admit the crew in New Orleans blew it. But in the wake of that admission, utter silence from the league itself. While an apology can't reverse the damage done on the field, the NFL front office should have released a statement acknowledging this major mistake in one of the most important games of the year. It's yet another imperative step toward integrity and transparency, toward building trust with the teams as well as the fans.
No single moment or snap or play or call (or missed call) determines the outcome of a game. It's never that simple. The Saints had multiple chances to win the NFC Championship even after Nickell Robey-Coleman got away with plowing through Tommylee Lewis. But why not limit the variables that can taint a final score? As the most powerful and prolific league in sports, the NFL has a responsibility to get it right. Expanding the scope of replay and adding oversight can make a world of difference with very few drawbacks.
There's no excuse for not fixing a broken system, especially after it's burned you so badly.

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.