As Grant Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal floated through the air Sunday evening, a collective groan arose from the thousands of New Orleans Saints fans in the Superdome and watching on television. Disappointment, sadness and heartbreak filled their hearts, only to be replaced with a stronger emotion: rage.
18 years ago, in the 2000 NFC Wild Card Game, the Saints found themselves in a similar situation. Leading the Rams, who were still in St. Louis at the time, by three points with less than two minutes in the game, the Saints lined up to punt.
Everyone knew what was about to happen. “The greatest show on turf” was about to march down the field and break the hearts of Saints fans yet again.
As the ball fluttered through the air, Saints fans felt the disappointment welling up within. Then something amazing happened.
“Hakim dropped the ball!” Saints radio announcer Jim Henderson exclaimed as Rams returner Az-Zahir Hakim muffed the kick, which was recovered by the Saints.
That play led to the first playoff win in franchise history and a temporary respite from the agony of Saints fandom.
On Sunday, the agony returned.
The Rams, now from Los Angeles, paraded into the Superdome looking to finish their long quest for revenge.
The game would be decided on the field, or so everyone thought.
With less than two minutes to play in a tie game, the Saints found themselves facing a third down and 10 from inside the red zone.
Drew Brees dropped back to throw and lofted a pass to receiver Tommy Lee Lewis, who had slipped away from the defense on a wheel route. It was a sure thing. A first down would all but clinch the game.
But instead of cheers, boos and jeering erupted from the crowd. Nickell Robey-Coleman, a Rams cornerback, lowered his helmet and hit Lewis before the ball arrived.
Everyone in the Superdome knew it was pass interference: the fans, the coaches, even Robey-Coleman himself. The only people who disagreed were the pinstriped football police. No yellow handkerchiefs came flying.
The Saints went on to lose the game on Zuerlein’s kick in overtime. You could almost hear the retired voice of Henderson echoing, “The referees dropped the call!”
For too long we have allowed refereeing error to become the norm in sports.
When a quarterback throws a late interception, we blame him for not executing his pass. When a basketball player misses the game-winning shot, we say they are not clutch.
When an official misses an important call, a championship-deciding call, we must call it for what it is: a problem.
But, it is a problem with a reasonable solution.
If the NFL can call Saints Head Coach Sean Payton immediately after the game and, according to Payton, admit they blew the call, surely the same league can buzz down to the officials and make a correction to an obvious mistake.
The Canadian Football League has been using replay on pass interference calls since 2014.
There are obviously concerns with pace of play. But, why should we be unwilling to sacrifice time to ensure accuracy when we waste it so quickly on commercials to sell catheters?
The NFL needs to place more accountability on its officials, either by making them available to the media after games, or by following the NBA’s lead and releasing a report judging the calls made in the final two minutes close games.
If the NFL is not careful, officials may make a huge mistake that could directly cost a team and thousands of fans the chance at a Super Bowl.