ATLANTA – NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged publicly for the first time Wednesday that officials in the Rams-Saints NFC Championship Game should have called a pass-interference penalty on a critical play late in the game. Goodell also said the league’s competition committee would look at possible solutions to avoid similar situations – including the expansion of instant replay to cover penalties – but suggested unintended consequences of a rule change might prevent such a move.
Goodell made the remarks in his annual state-of-the-NFL address in advance of Super Bowl LIII. He said senior director of officiating Al Riveron told coach Sean Payton shortly after the Saints' 26-23 overtime loss that a penalty should have been called on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. Had the penalty been called near the Rams’ 5-yard line, where Robey-Coleman made helmet-to-helmet contact with receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived, the Saints likely would have been able to run down the clock and attempt the winning field goal in the final seconds. Instead, the Saints kicked a field goal with 1:41 remaining, and the Rams drove and kicked the tying field goal with 15 seconds left in regulation.
“Coach Payton spoke to Al Riveron immediately after the game. Al told him that’s a [penalty] we’ve got to have called,” Goodell said. “I have spoken to [Payton], [director of football operations] Troy Vincent has spoken to him, [and Saints owner] Mrs. [Gayle] Benson, has also spoken to the competition committee.”
Goodell said the competition committee “will definitely consider” a change to the replay system, but cautioned about potential dangers.
“Always what happens in the competition committee is not just considering a solution, but what are the unintended consequences to that solution,” he said. “That’s important with this issue of not wanting a replay official or an official back in New York throwing a flag on a no-call. If that happens, you could have multiple fouls on the play that people are looking at. Are there solutions for this? That’s what the committee has to focus in on: What are the solutions? What are the unintended consequences?”
Goodell said the league previously explored the possibility of adding penalties to the list of reviewable plays, but that coaches resisted.
“There have been a variety of proposals over the last 15 to 20 years of [whether] replay should be expanded,” he said. “It does not cover judgment calls. This was a judgment call. The other complication is that coaches and clubs have been very resistant about having a replay official or somebody in New York throw a flag.”
Riveron, who is based in New York, decides instant- replay challenges and reviewable calls in the final two minutes of each half.
“We understand the frustration that [Saints coaches, players and fans] feel right now,” Goodell said. “We certainly want to address that, so whenever officiating is part of any discussion postgame, it’s never a good outcome for that. We know that, our clubs know that, our officials know that, but we also know our officials are human. They’re not always going to get it right every time. The game is not officiated by robots.”
Many Saints fans have called for Goodell to vacate the Rams’ victory and require the teams to replay the end of the game – or even the entire game. Goodell said he never gave consideration to that scenario, and cited an NFL rule that prohibits a score from being overturned over an officiating call.