On Sunday, the New England Patriots will take to the field seeking their sixth Super Bowl championship. On the other sideline, 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees will look to capitalize on what may be his last-ever opportunity to win a second title for the New Orleans Saints. The Saints, after hitting a deep pass into the red zone in the NFC Championship Game, gained a critical first down by penalty, allowing them to run down the clock and hit the game-winning field goal as time expired.
But this isn’t reality. The referees missed the penalty call, denying the Saints the chance to run down the clock before kicking the field goal and allowing the Los Angeles Rams to tie the game and ultimately win in overtime.
From the kickoff onward, Super Bowl LIII is tainted. The legacies of several players and coaches are vastly different as a result of one indisputably blown call. If the NFL wants to show its fans that it cares about the product on the field, a complete overhaul of the league’s officiating system is necessary.
A common theme among officiating controversies are the complaints about an overcomplicated rule book. The infamous “Dez caught it” play four years ago sparked the debate of how to define a catch. All season long, defensive ends were confused about how they could hit quarterbacks to avoid being flagged for roughing the passer. These kinds of unclear rules irritate fans, players and coaches alike, decreasing the quality of the game.
The controversy that occurred during the championship on Sunday was not a case of a clouded rule book. Both pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact were clearly committed and the officials simply failed to call them. In the following days, the NFL fined the offending player for helmet-to-helmet contact, acknowledging that a foul had been committed.
This has to be the tipping point for the league. There is no excuse for missing the call. The millions of fans watching at home saw that it was pass interference, so how did the officiating crew miss it?
In the short term, something needs to happen to protect the integrity of the game. According to NBC’s Peter King, Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, is unlikely to survive this controversy, compounded with prior controversies in the two seasons he has held the position. If the league does indeed release Riveron, whoever replaces him must come in with a clear plan to clean up the NFL’s officiating procedures and prevent the referees and the rule book from ruining the game fans care so much about.
While Riveron deserves significant blame for everything that has happened, he is not the one making the calls on the field. There are several NFL officials whose performances this season warrant consideration about their future with the league.
In an unprecedented move earlier this year, an official was fired by the league after missing a clear false start. It is a positive sign for the league to be holding their officials accountable for their actions on the field, but it was only one known official removed. An improved system of evaluation, during both the season and offseason, is undoubtedly necessary.
The NFL should expedite plans to implement all forms of technology possible to help officials make calls. For years, the league has been putting radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips in footballs, using them to collect data about players. Eventually, the use of RFID technology could help the officials determine where to spot a ball or whether or not it crossed the goal line. Increased usage of cameras, particularly on the football or players’ helmets, could help significantly with video reviews.
At this point, nothing can be done to rectify the blown call in New Orleans. The Rams are in the Super Bowl and the Saints’ season is over. The fallout has been and will continue to be a black eye for the league until sweeping changes are made to better its officiating procedures. Whether it be through personnel changes or increased technology, something needs to change.