(Reuters) - The National Football League was facing up to its latest controversy on Monday after an egregious non-call by referees during the NFC championship game likely robbed the New Orleans Saints of a Super Bowl berth.
The missed pass interference call that denied the Saints a chance to run down the clock and kick a game-winning field goal comes at the tail-end of a season that began with NFL players’ anthem protests.
“REFFING UNBELIEVABLE,” screamed the front page headline of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper on Monday in reference to Sunday’s officiating blunder that many in the American football world consider one of the worst no-calls in NFL history.
Even an electronic highway sign above the Pontchartrain Causeway outside New Orleans was changed after the National Football Conference championship game to read: “We Were Robbed.”
The controversy started when Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman barreled into Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis with a helmet-to-helmet hit well before the pass arrived inside the Rams’ 5-yard line.
Had the penalty been called, the Saints would have had a first-and-goal situation with under two minutes left and could have run out almost all of the clock and set up a game-winning field goal.
But the Saints instead kicked a field goal and the Rams had enough time to tie the game with a field goal of their own before going on to win the game 26-23 in overtime.
The incident quickly lit up social media where many from the NFL world ripped into officials for a blown no-call that probably denied the Saints their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2009 season.
“That is a terrible no call,” Super Bowl-winning head coach Tony Dungy said on Twitter. “The officials don’t want to make calls at the end of playoff games but that pass interference has to be called.”
Even Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who won a Super Bowl with the Rams when they were based in St. Louis, chimed in on Twitter and said: “Cmon... gotta make that call!!!”
Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters he received a phone call from the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating immediately after the game.
“It was simple. They blew the call,” Payton said. “They said it should never have not been a call. They said not only was it interference, it was helmet-to-helmet. There were two calls. They just couldn’t believe it.”
NFL coaches are allowed to make coach’s challenges but cannot use them for things like defensive pass interference, although their counterparts in the smaller Canadian Football League have been able to challenge such plays since 2014.
The idea of allowing coaches to use a challenge for pass interference has been discussed before but has yet to receive enough support from team owners to pass.
The NFL did not reply when asked to comment on whether it has plans this offseason to consider making pass interference calls subject to instant replay review.
But with two weeks still to go before the Rams face the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, which will be played in Atlanta, talk about the glaring blunder by game officials does not appear to be disappearing anytime soon.
“I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference,” said Payton. “It happened though, so we can’t dwell on it. We’ll probably never get over it.”
The Rams victory means that for the first time in 35 years, America’s most celebrated sporting event will feature a team from Los Angeles.
As such, the mood in the Rams camp was much more jubilant and they applauded the officiating after their triumph.
“I thought it was a bang-bang type play. The one thing I respect about the refs today is that they let the guys compete and they let the guys play,” said Rams head coach Sean McVay.
“Certainly I’m not going to complain about the way that was officiated. I thought that it was a competitive play.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris