More than 50 cameras blanketed the Superdome in New Orleans on Sunday afternoon, ensuring endless angles and replays of every highlight from the NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams.
At stake was a trip to next month’s Super Bowl, but when the officials needed a replay most, the NFL’s complicated rules for what is and is not subject to video review prohibited them from watching one, even in the midst of a game that cost tens of millions of dollars to produce and is among the most watched events on television.
So, despite dizzying rules changes and stunning camera angles all aimed at getting the calls right, the decision came down to a simple fact: The most important guy was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and nobody could do anything about it.
Those rules might change this offseason, though in the past the NFL has shown little appetite for making penalties reviewable because they are considered judgment calls. This means that rulings of fact — such as whether a ball crossed the goal line, or a foot touched the sideline, or whether a pass is complete — are reviewable. Whether a player committed holding or pass interference is not.
In the minute after a crucial late-game play on which referees could have called two separate penalties on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman but opted to call none, Fox’s broadcast team showed five separate replays that made clear officials had made a terrible mistake. It appeared to cost the Saints an advantage that could have led to their winning the game. As those replays rolled, side judge Gary Cavaletto, who was near the play, endured an earful from Saints coach Sean Payton.
However, in an era when anyone watching on a high-definition television at home has as good a view as the officials on the field do, as well as the benefit of reverse angles and slow motion for each play, the harsh judgment of the world most often ends up carrying the day: The official screwed up.
Saints owner Gayle Benson rendered her judgment in an emotional statement issued late Monday afternoon, vowing to make sure no team ever experiences what hers did Sunday.
“I have been in touch with the NFL regarding yesterday’s events and will aggressively pursue changes in NFL policies to ensure no team and fan base is ever put in a similar position again,” Benson said. “The NFL must always commit to providing the most basic of expectations — fairness and integrity.”
The league declined to issue a statement about what will undoubtedly become one of the most notorious non-calls in the league’s history. An NFL spokesman, Brian McCarthy, also declined to comment when asked about the play. The head official for the game, Bill Vinovich, told a pool reporter after the game that he had not seen the play, pointing out that plays involving potential pass interference are not reviewable.
The closest thing to an official league position came from Payton, the Saints’ head coach. After the game, he said he had spoken on the phone with Alberto Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, who told him the officials botched the call, a position the league chose not to refute.
While the relative silence may seem odd in the age of very public apologies and mea culpas, the NFL actually has no consistent strategy for dealing with high-profile officiating errors, a reflection of what is often an idiosyncratic approach to crisis management. Sometimes Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, chooses to say plenty; other times he says nothing at all.
When it comes to major officiating mistakes, often what happened does not become clear until years later, when the official involved chooses to speak.
Bill Leavy can’t forget the 2006 Super Bowl. As an NFL referee, officiating the biggest game of the season should have been an honor for Leavy. Instead, it is the night he will always remember for all the wrong reasons.
Leavy and his crew made several controversial calls that went against the Seattle Seahawks, who ended up losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers by 21-10. The league tried to protect Leavy’s crew when it said the game was “properly officiated.”
Years later, Leavy acknowledged the missed calls and said they still weighed on him.
“It left me with a lot of sleepless nights, and I think about it constantly,” Leavy told reporters in Seattle in 2010, four years after the game. “I’ll go to my grave wishing that I’d been better.”
Video replay was supposed to rectify much of that. Former NFL coach Mike Holmgren refers to it as the “50 guys in a bar” rule. If 50 people watching in a bar agree it’s a bad call, it should probably be overturned. Yet, like a lot of things that happen in the NFL, which has a dense, 89-page rule book. It is never that simple.
Cavaletto might want to heed Leavy’s remorse. Cavaletto, the side judge in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, has been widely ridiculed for not calling a penalty late in the fourth quarter on Robey-Coleman, who drilled New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived.
Cavaletto, who did not grant an interview, and the other referees could have called penalties for pass interference or a helmet-to-helmet hit, but they chose to call neither.
The Saints settled for a field goal, but enough time remained on the clock for the Rams to march down the field and kick a field goal that sent the game into overtime. The Rams ended up winning the game, 26-23.
“It was simple: They blew the call,” Payton said after the game.
Cavaletto, 63, spent most of his NFL career as a field judge before becoming a sideline judge before the 2014 season. He worked Super Bowl in 2012, between the New York Giants and New England Patriots.
He is a 1973 graduate of Bishop Diego High School in Santa Barbara, California, where he played football, baseball and basketball. Cavaletto later played parts of three seasons in the Atlanta Braves minor league system, as a first baseman.
After washing out of baseball, Cavaletto became a three-sport official, officiating Division I college basketball and baseball games, as well as Canadian Football League and Arena Football League games, before making his NFL debut in 2003.
He, too, will most likely live with his non-call for years to come.
In the past, officials involved in controversial calls have not worked subsequent games involving the aggrieved team. It is a good bet, then, that Cavaletto will not be seen at future Saints games.
Infuriated Saints fans, who have long insisted that the NFL remains biased against them because its coaches were found to have rewarded injuring opponents, took to social media after the game to note that Cavaletto lives a mere two hours from Los Angeles.
His non-call may also lead to change.
That is, after all, what happened after a series of mistakes involving the NFL’s “tuck rule.”
The most famous invocation of that rule came during a playoff game in 2002, when a fumble by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was overturned and ruled an incomplete pass after a replay review by referee Walt Coleman. Brady’s arm, Coleman ruled, had begun a forward movement before he attempted to tuck the ball back toward his body. The Patriots went on to defeat the Oakland Raiders in overtime.
While the NFL elected to leave the rule as-is following that game, a push to make a change began in earnest after another instance in a 2011 playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs. Finally, in 2013, after continued consternation over the regulation, the NFL abolished the tuck rule.
Even though Coleman officiated for 17 seasons after the game before retiring this year, he never officiated another Raiders game.