NFL’s Referee Controversy is Not a New Problem

January 20, 2019: a day that will forever be remembered by New Orleans Saints fans, and not by their choosing.

“I didn’t come out of my room, ate Jeni’s ice cream and watched Netflix,” coach Sean Payton said of his post-game activities after their devastating and highly controversial loss to the Rams in the NFC championship game this past week. “Tough to swallow,” was all the visibly shaken quarterback Drew Brees could say after the loss.

Greg Zuerlein was the hero for the Rams, with his clutch game-winning field goal from 57 yards out sealing their victory in what was the first of two overtime thrillers on that championship Sunday.

The first game between the Rams and Saints was a matchup between two of the league’s most prolific offenses, and went to overtime after two late game field goals inside of the last two minutes by each team to tie the score at 23 by the end of regulation. The Saints received the ball after the ensuing coin toss to begin the overtime period. On a second-and-16 from their own 34, Brees took a five-step drop and looked for his favorite target, receiver Michael Thomas, who was running a corner route. Rams defensive players Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler brought pressure on Brees, who was unable to get off a good ball after being hit by the two, ultimately lofting a floater that fell right into the lap of Rams cornerback John Johnson. This led to two Jared Goff completions to tight end Tyler Higbee, setting up Zuerlein for the game-winner.

None of these plays was talked about after the game. The main topic surrounding the events that took place on Jan. 20 isn’t even centered on the players, the coaches or any of the personnel. It’s about a group that can perhaps have more effect than all three combined: the referees.

Before Wil Lutz’s field goal that would put the Saints up 23-20 (before being matched by Zuerlein to send the game to overtime), most who watched the game argued that the Saints were robbed of a touchdown opportunity that should have won them the game. The play came on a third-and-10 with 1:45 to go. Brees threw a flat route to receiver Tommylee Lewis coming out of the backfield, who was subsequently leveled before the ball arrived by Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams.

The stadium erupted at the no-call on what appeared to be an obvious defensive pass interference, and all fans at home could hear was Fox’s Joe Buck emphatically, and surprisingly exclaiming “no flag.” A call on the play would’ve set up a first down and goal situation for the Saints, and likely an eminent victory after a few quarterback kneels from Brees and a field goal (the Rams had only one timeout remaining.)

After the game, Sean Payton told Fox’s Erin Andrews that the Saints lost the game because of the call. “Credit the Rams,” he conceded, “but for a call like that not to be made, that’s hard.”

The NFL has come out and spoken about the incident, admitting that the referees had missed the pass interference call. “It is a play that should be called,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell commented, “whenever officiating is part of any kind of discussion post-game, it is never a good outcome for us… we know that, our clubs know that, our officials know that.”

Payton also said that he had spoken to the head of officiating, Al Riveron, who also told him the referees had missed the call. It was viewed by most as the deciding play of the game; Rams running back Todd Gurley even posted a meme on Instagram showing him performing a traditional “jersey exchange” with the referees as a humorous ‘thank you’. Saints receiver Michael Thomas sent out a request to Goodell, citing a provision written in the NFL’s rulebook that allows the commissioner to reverse a call and resume the game at the exact time of the infraction.  Despite Thomas’ attempts and countless letters and outcry from fans, when Goodell was asked whether or not he would consider overturning the call, he replied bluntly, “absolutely not.”

This is not the first time the NFL has come under fire for referee blunders in the past few years. It began with the replacement referee fiasco of 2012. After the NFL and their Referee’s Association failed to come to an agreement during the league’s renewal of the collective bargaining agreement, the league was forced to hire replacement referees in efforts to avoid a stall on the upcoming season. The replacement refs, some of whom were college officials, and some whose experience did not stretch further than high school, showed a noticeable difference compared to the experienced and high-salaried referees fans were used to. They lasted 3 weeks.

Several early season blunders and botched calls caused a stir among the NFL community, with a Sporting News poll citing a truly amazing figure: “90% of players said that they believed the replacement officials were considerably altering games’ outcomes.” These missed calls included incorrectly awarding 27 yards for a 15-yard pass interference penalty that resulted in a Titans game winning field goal, and several missed helmet to helmet and personal foul calls.

No blunder was bigger though, than the no-call that allowed the Seahawks to squeeze by the Packers late during a Monday night game in Week 3, a game most will remember. Seahawks receiver Golden Tate shoved Packers safety M.D. Jennings out of the way before catching a Russell Wilson pass during the game’s closing seconds, an obvious missed offensive pass interference call that would have changed the outcome of the game. The NFL subsequently rehired their original officials, reaching a deal on a new CBA in the following days.

The return of NFL-tested referees, however, did not result in a substantial increase in trust from players and fans towards officials and how they would end up impacting games. The NFL has admitted referee errors on multiple occasions after they took place, which did little but create more animosity towards their decisions. Gene Steratore, now an employee for CBS, is one particular referee that has been in the spotlight multiple times for important calls that ended becoming decisive to game outcomes. His “Calvin Johnson” stipulation, one that employs a no-catch rule in situations where the ball hits the ground, even after a receiver makes a football move, was one that decided the result of multiple games, including a Calvin Johnson game-winner against Chicago, and an infamous Dez Bryant play that Cowboys fans will still argue to this day. His use of an index card to determine whether or not the Cowboys received a first down on a crucial fourth down play was also criticized.

The 2018-19 season also had multiple controversial calls, including one that, coincidentally, went the Saints way; a pass interference call that sealed a victory for them over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Several players, both current and former, also spoke up on the poor officiating. Former Redskins linebacker London Fletcher stated that he would not have been able to deal with a loss of that nature, saying it would be “devastating”. Current Monday Night Football analyst Charles Woodson, famous for a fumble-causing hit on Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game, known as the famous “Tuck Rule Game”, tweeted his understanding for the Saints players and expressed his sympathies.

The hype of the Super Bowl, emerging questions surrounding the Patriots dynasty and how long Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s tenure will last, coupled with America’s excitement over starlet mastermind coach Sean McVay makes for a very interesting matchup. This is the city of Los Angeles’ first Super Bowl since the 1980’s, and the Patriots seem to boost ratings just by being there, love them or hate them. Despite this though, concerns surrounding referee’s impact on the game still remain at the forefront.

New England saw a few incorrect calls go their way during their AFC Championship matchup with Kansas City, including a shocking roughing the passer call on Brady, who still had the football in his hands upon being hit by a Chiefs defensive lineman.

The game itself is the ultimate spectacle, but refereeing will undoubtedly be one of the most discussed stories going into what is gearing up to be one of the most exciting Super Bowls in recent memory.

Justin Morris can be reached at

Credit: NFL