Something funny happened in the NFL on Sunday.
Sean Payton and Bill Belichick thought they got cheated.
The coach who presided over Bountygate and the coach who is synonymous with football espionage grew pouty, Payton calling the league office moments after the Saints lost to the Rams, and Belichick flinging his tablet toward the Arrowhead Stadium stands after he believed officials missed a call against the Chiefs.
Payton was right about this: The officiating in the NFC Championship Game was horrific, and one call in particular will remain infamous in New Orleans.
New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis went up for a pass from Drew Brees near the goal line late in the game and the score tied. Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman ignored the pass, which he might have been able to intercept, and blasted Lewis.
The officials could have called pass interference, or a personal foul. Either would have all but guaranteed a New Orleans victory.
No flag was thrown, and the Rams rallied to win in overtime, robbing the Saints of their second-ever Super Bowl berth.
While Saints coach Sean Payton was calling the league office and being told that the officials missed that call, the AFC Championship Game was beginning in Kansas City.
And guess what? There were a half-dozen game-changing calls that were made or missed in that contest as well.
I’ve been writing about sports for decades, and I used to coach youth sports when nobody else could be found to do the job. My philosophy in both cases is the same when it comes to officiating:
You might blame an official for costing you a victory only if you, as a player or coach, didn’t make any important mistakes yourself.
Payton was right about the missed call. He also declined to mention important calls that went against the Rams, and that his coaching mistakes put his team in a position where one bad officials’ call could beat him.
On the Saints’ last drive in regulation, had they run the ball three times and kicked a short field goal, they would have won the game. New Orleans has the best running back duo in the NFL.
But Payton called for a first-down pass, to be clever. It was incomplete, and so was a pass on third down. The Saints started that sequence with 1:58 remaining on the clock. They ended that sequence with 1:48 remaining, leaving the Rams plenty of time to drive to send the game into overtime.
Payton also regularly took Drew Brees off the field or from under center to feature glorified H-back Taysom Hill, proving that Payton cares as much about demonstrating that he is a genius than winning games.
Brees ranks among the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Hill is at best the Saints’ sixth-best offensive player. He is a poor man’s Tim Tebow. Payton lost to a young quarterback and a Rams team that did not seem to have the full services of one of its MVP candidates, Todd Gurley, at the Superdome, in what remains the single best home-field advantage in the NFL.
Payton deserved to lose.
Go ahead, Vikings fans: Enjoy this. Payton’s only Super Bowl berth resulted from the Saints defense brutalizing Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, and a couple of questionable calls late in regular and in overtime.
But, Vikings fans, remember the rule: Your team wouldn’t have lost that game if not for a 12th-man in the huddle penalty that had nothing to do with bad officiating or Gregg Williams’ bounties.
We have reached a point with NFL officiating where there are two clear options:
1. The league can place its best officials in the booth and review every play, allowing that lead official to stop play for further review every time he or she sees something questionable. Make everything reviewable — penalties, judgment calls, whatever — and accept that games might last four hours.
2. Accept that officials are going to make mistakes, even egregious ones, and quit your whining.