NEW ORLEANS — Tommylee Lewis stands in front of his locker, head down, voice low, as dozens of recorders and cameras are thrust in his face. He’s wearing an all- black tracksuit, an outfit that feels appropriate for the mood in the room—dark, gloomy, funereal. After an afternoon of the Superdome being so ear-shatteringly loud that Rams QB Jared Goff resorted to covering the earholes of his helmet with tape in order to hear the plays, the Saints locker room is completely, understandably, silent.
It’s about an hour after Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman lowered his right shoulder into Lewis at the five-yard line with 1:49 left in regulation, delivering a crushing blow. The problem, however, is that the tackle came nearly a full second too early, before the ball was anywhere near the receiver.
As Lewis bounced up from the turf, he says he was sure there was going to be a flag waiting for him nearby. It was as clear a pass-interference call as the game of football could produce. Except, when Lewis scanned the field, there was no flag. No penalty was called.
This would have been an egregious missed call at any point, in any game. That it came with less than two minutes left in the NFC conference championship, when a first down would have effectively ended the game and sent New Orleans to the Super Bowl, is incomprehensible. It feels so unlikely, so impossible, that the players in the room don’t seem to even know how to react.
After the game, Lewis didn’t feel the need to state his case to the assembled reporters. He doesn’t explain the rules of football, doesn’t enumerate all of the reasons why the hit should have been a pass interference call. He doesn’t even really complain about it, because he knows that everyone saw what happened.
“There’s not too much more to say about the play,” Lewis says. “Obviously it was interference.”
At that time of the play, the Rams only had two timeouts left. If a penalty had been called, the Saints would have been able to kneel three times, drain out the clock and kick the game-winning field goal.
Instead, a penalty was not called. Instead, beer bottles were thrown on the field by irate Saints fans. Instead, the Rams got the ball back with 1:41 left in the game, marched down the field and kicked a field goal to send the game to overtime. Instead, Drew Brees threw an interception in the extra period and Los Angeles kicker Greg Zuerlein nailed a 57-yard field goal to win the game. Instead, the Rams are now going to Atlanta to compete for the Lombardi Trophy, and the Saints are going into another offseason shocked by the unlikeliest of defeats. But this time it wasn’t even their fault.
If the correct call had been made, Club Lil’ Saint—what the Saints players have called their post-win locker room nightclub scene all season long—would be in peak form right now. This room would be dancing and celebrating, the smoke machine would be pumping out fog, the strobe lights would be pulsating, the speakers blasting out Choppa Style. Backup QB Teddy Bridgewater would be riding a fake motorcycle around the room.
Instead, Lewis is standing sullen and being asked some variation of the same question over and over. What did you see? How did you feel? How could they miss that call? Is that the worst call you’ve ever seen?
“What’s done is done,” Lewis says. “It was a bad call. Terrible call. Y’all saw it.”
At the podium in the press conference room next door, Sean Payton said he spoke with the league office, which admitted that there were actually two blown calls: it should have been both pass interference and a helmet-to-helmet hit
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a more obvious pass interference call,” Payton says. “It’s a game-changing call.”
Around the locker room, as the same questions are being asked to everyone, players seem less angry than incredulous. They don’t scream and demand justice. Disbelief is the overriding emotion. How can you be angry about something that makes no sense?
“I don’t know what he saw,” defensive end Cam Jordan says, in regards to the referee. “Maybe he doesn’t know what he saw.”
Jordan goes on to say all the right things. That the team still had a chance to win the game, that they can’t let their foot off the gas, that they should have gotten a stop, that the team will build off this moment and use it as motivation next season. Still, he’s asked how he feels about the call.
“Words can’t describe it,” he says.
A few lockers over, defensive tackle Tyeler Davison is answering more of the same questions, because what else is there to talk about? He, too, is levelheaded. Davison says the team felt they deserved to win, but that they will just use it as motiviation to go harder next year.
“Refereeing is a very difficult job,” Davison says. “So maybe we should take steps to help the ref. If you look on the screen and see it’s a bad call maybe we should be able to change the call.”
It’s a remarkably understanding and considerate opinion, considering the circumstances. It is also the right opinion. Even if this missed pass interference was an obvious call—and it was—Davison is right, refereering isn’t an easy job. So why wouldn’t we do everything we can to help referees, make sure we get the call right, to ensure that a championship game isn’t decided by something so avoidable?
Around all sports these days, more and more changes are being made to implement modern technological advances to help referees. Just last year, the World Cup made it so offsides calls were reviewable—a rule change that the sport’s purists derided—and it worked seamlessly. Because shouldn’t the only thing we care about be having the correct outcome?
“You have to control what you can control,” Davison says.
It’s true, the game was decided by something that the Saints couldn’t control—a blown call. But it didn’t have to be that way, and it shouldn’t have been that way. And now the onus is on the league to figure out a way to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
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