NEW ORLEANS — It probably doesn’t take a lot of imagination for you to envision what it was like here late Sunday. Hours earlier, as the sun hugged the French Quarter morning and boundless hope electrified the locals, a concierge at my hotel had warned: “When you come home tonight, better have your walking shoes on. Cabs won’t be able to get anywhere near here tonight when we win.”
When. We. Win.
Yes, they were ready for a party.
Instead, my driver was able to drop me off right on the corner of Bourbon Street and Toulouse Street. There were revelers, of course, because even in depression, this is one of the joyous pockets of America. But it was muted. As a sad-faced woman wearing a No. 9 Drew Brees jersey named Debbie Scrimshaw said: “Two straight years we’ve had our hearts crushed in the playoffs. I’m not sure why I didn’t see this coming.”
Of course, last year’s heartache arrived because of a miracle in Minnesota, a 61-yard heave from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs on the game’s final play to give the Vikings an impossible 29-24 win in the divisional round. That one was bad, it was awful, it famously sent television sets flying through apartment windows on YouTube … but, well, it’s different when you have to rail against your own team, your own players. That’s part of the sports-fan compact, after all.
Sunday was different. Sunday was in the hands of strangers wearing striped shirts. Late at night we learned the two primary offenders were side judge Gary Cavaletto and down judge Patrick Turner, the two men on referee Bill Vinovich’s crew who had the best views of the pass-interference and helmet-to-helmet penalties that Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman committed on Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis late in the NFC Championship — except both men kept their flags in their pockets.
How bad was that non-call? Well, in maybe the most glorious case of sporting honesty ever, Washington Post reporter Adam Kilgore showed video of the play to Robey-Coleman afterward, in the Rams locker room.
“Oh, hell yeah, that was PI,” the player said. “I just know I got there before the ball got there and I whacked his ass.”
It was as black a black eye as the NFL has ever had, and it will almost surely lead to a change in replay rules that many coaches — Sean Payton among them, even before his team was victimized Sunday — have advocated: making pass-interference calls eligible for video review.
Right now penalties are not allowed to be looked at, and there is a good reason for that. Games already regularly bleed past 3½ hours, and replay stalls often suck the life out of even the most exciting games. The last thing any sport needs, in a vacuum, is more replay.
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But Sunday’s game wasn’t played in a vacuum. And while a call that egregious always sparks the darker and more cynical segments of our soul, we have to believe that neither Cavaletto nor Turner WANTED the scrutiny that this blown call has brought. Refs in all sports miss plays for any number of reasons: speed of the game, angles, eyes that simply didn’t see what 75,000 others did. It’s almost never nefarious. But it is always damaging. And, in this case, fixable.
Here’s how I would write the new rule:
In the first three quarters, business proceeds as usual, with these calls not subject to review. But in the fourth quarter and overtime, allow both coaches one extra review specifically for pass interference. And make the stakes for using the challenge punitive, to disallow all but the most egregious mistakes: If the call isn’t overturned, the challenging team incurs a 5-yard penalty. And the challenges can be used both to lobby for an uncalled penalty or to overturn a called one.
It isn’t perfect, because no replay system in any sport is perfect. In a perfect world, the NFL, which prints money, would hire all full-time officials — not just the 24 it employs now — even if they only “work” on 25 or so days per year, from exhibition games through the Super Bowl; having the job be, in essence, a weekend moonlighting job has always been a bad look. And in a perfect world, of course, those officials would, for lack of a better term, simply be better at their jobs than what we’ve seen in recent years.
But in an imperfect world, replay is there to help. Replay is there to get it right. If it’s good enough to detect two feet in bounds, it ought to be good enough to see two hands on a jersey before the ball arrives.
There is no excuse for the dark clouds that hover over the NFL right now. Especially when they can be driven away so easily.