Hard to know where to start when discussing the eight-day-old officiating decision heard-round-the-NFL that played a major role in the Rams winning the NFC title game. I think we should start at silence … silence from the NFL, and from commissioner Roger Goodell, and (mostly) from vice president for officiating Al Riveron.
It is disconcerting that Goodell, who entered the league as a PR intern three-and-a-half decades ago, has been so weak-kneed in hiding from the onslaught of this controversy. It started with an obvious pass interference infraction that went uncalled in the Superdome eight days ago, advanced to the chambers of the U.S. Senate on Friday, and will dog Goodell till he acknowledges the momentous error, presumably at his state-of-the-league press conference Wednesday.
Goodell has a new high-powered PR team around him, but he’s never been one to take much advice in how to respond to public crises. That frustrated some of his now departed PR appointees, who found that he listened to their advice but usually did what he wanted regardless. But what seems so tone-deaf and arrogant about ignoring the no-call in New Orleans is … well, let me enumerate:
• It flies in the face of what the NFL has done for years. Searching the internet Friday, I found 15 occasions (I bet it’s closer to 30) since 2003 that the NFL admitted an officiating error publicly—either in a statement, or on the league’s in-house NFL Network, or on Twitter. The NFL has not commented publicly since Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams slammed into Saints wideout Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived with 1:43 left in a tied NFC title game at the L.A. 6-yard line. The Saints, had the obvious infraction been flagged, could have run the clock down to about 20 to 25 seconds, kicked the go-ahead chip-shot field goal, then kicked off to the Rams, who had no timeouts left. Suffice to say that it’s more likely than not that the Saints would have won the game. After the game, Saints coach Sean Payton said Riveron admitted the mistake to him over the phone. But that’s all we’ve heard about the most important officiating mistake in years.
It’s so different from recent history. The league’s three officiating czars in the last 16 years—Mike Pereira, Dean Blandino and Riveron—have publicly admitted errors large and small and often have apologized for them, including a huge missed defensive pass-interference error at the end of the 49ers’ 39-38 wild-card win over the Giants in January 2003. “The game [should] have been extended by one untimed down,” a league statement said. Take it all the way to last month, when Riveron admitted the officials blew a Bobby Wagner illegal leap to block a Vikings field goal in Seattle. “This is a foul,” Riveron said. But now, nothing. The sounds of silence, disgracefully, on the worst missed call in the league in years. The message: The NFL will admit mistake after mistake after mistake, significant ones, but when it comes to a colossal gaffe, league officials will hide in their Park Avenue fortress.
• What good would it do? Not much. But in a league that asks for the public trust and holds itself up as a sporting model of propriety, it’s called doing the right thing. It’s a simple public statement Goodell could issue; he should make it, because the buck stops with him. Or he could do it on camera with someone like Judy Battista or Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. He could deliver a simple message:
We appreciate the passion of the Saints and their fans, who are some of the best fans in the league. We’re lucky to have them. There was a mistake made by our officials at the end of the NFC Championship Game at a crucial point of the game, and it’s a mistake we don‘t take lightly. We regret the error. We know that doesn’t fix the mistake. But we want fans of the Saints and fans of our league to know we’ll work hard to improve our officiating. This takes nothing away from the efforts of the Los Angeles Rams, who deserve the victory and will be worthy representatives of the NFC in the Super Bowl. We’re now going to re-double our efforts to make sure we close the loophole that allowed this to happen. All options are on the table for improving officiating, and our Competition Committee will work immediately to figure out the best way to help our officials be even better in 2019 and beyond.”
• It’s totally disrespectful to fans—in Louisiana and across the country—to ignore the story. Let’s now count how many places Goodell must need extra security—if he even shows his face in public there. New England. St. Louis. San Diego. Oakland. Louisiana. Anywhere the draft is held. As for the Saints: It’s hard to go to New Orleans and not be wowed by the passion of the fans. When a third of the metro area population went away following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the fans of a bad Saints team responded by selling out the Superdome for 2006—and every year since. I go to all the cities and see all the teams. I can tell you there is no place more passionate than Louisiana about its team. They’re hurting. They’re angry. They’re despondent. What do they get from the NFL? The back of its hand.
I spoke to retiring Saints tight end Benjamin Watson the same day he issued his impassioned where-is-Roger statement. He echoed it to me, pretty much. “This an imperfect game, coached by imperfect people, played by imperfect people, reffed by imperfect people,” Watson said. “This is simply a case where one of those imperfect people made a huge mistake and impacted a team and a city and a lot of passionate fans. The commissioner should say something. This is an NFL franchise. These are some of your most passionate fans. This is not a franchise on the fringe, or an expansion franchise. For him to sit there and not say anything, for him to be silent, is disheartening for the fans. Not just for Saints fans but football fans. They want to know the game is not rigged. Plus, it is disrespectful to the men in both locker rooms, who deserve the truth. Instead, all we get is silence.”
• The league’s valuation of the vice president of officiating position is dumb, and should be re-thought, even if it means Riveron goes. Football Zebras, the NFL officiating watchdog site, estimates that the officiating VP post a salary of about $350,000 a year. From Labor Day to early February, a span of more than five months, the job is the second-most important in pro football administration, behind one person—Goodell. It is beyond ridiculous that the second-most important guy in the league office for the season, the face of the league in many weeks, makes 1 percent of Roger Goodell’s annual compensation.
Let’s say the NFL moves to strengthen the internal operations of officiating. Let’s say they begin to pay this job for what the headaches and brickbats and cover-the-NFL’s-rear part of the job are worth. My recommendation: Call Blandino and his employer, network partner FOX, and see if a signing bonus of $1 million and annual salary of $1 million could convince him to jump back to the league, where he is missed. Convince FOX it’s for the good of the game. (Blandino recently said he’ll stay in television, but I’d like to see what he’d do if offered $2 million for his services in 2019.) Keep Riveron, if he’ll stay, as Blandino’s number two, which he used to be.
One last thing: Put everything on the table for discussion at the league’s March meeting in Phoenix, but decide nothing. Give it the proper consideration. Then convene a week-long post-draft power meeting in New York with the Competition Committee and other influential league pillars, like Belichick. Put everything on the table. Bring in John Madden, Ozzie Newsome, Ed Hochuli and the respected idea people to figure out the best way to proceed on new officiating strictures.
With most every significant league figure in Atlanta for at least part of this week, this should be the start of an idea period. I’ll share one that I got from an active NFL coach last week, in a text. “Rules need to be changed for the playoffs,” the coach wrote. “Coaches need to have more challenge and be able to challenge more types of calls, like P.I. It’s too important to say, ‘Well, we’ve never done that before.’ It’s the playoffs. All that matters is we get it right!”