Super Bowl Time: When the Rams Go Marching In

John Mirisch
Mayor of Beverly Hills

The great Stephen A. Smith called the Rams NFC Championship Game victory over the Saints “a heist.” Others – not the least Saints fans themselves – have called it a lot worse. More than a week later and less than a week before the Super Bowl, the controversy hasn’t died down. In fact, several lawsuits are still pending.

And while the muffed pass interference call is not in dispute, the notion that the Saints should be going to Super Bowl LIII and that the Rams are interlopers is simply wrong on any number of levels.

The muffed call didn’t happen in a vacuum. Games are not played in vacuums. And it wasn’t the only muffed call which had the potential to influence the outcome of the game.

The widespread narrative is that by missing the PI call on Lewis, the refs “gifted” the game and a Super Bowl berth to the Rams. Playing the “What If” game, the argument is roughly as follows: if PI is called, the Saints have the ball on the 5 yard line with a fresh set of downs. They can either score a TD or run the clock down and kick a winning field goal with less than a minute to play.

The FG scenario assumes that the field goal is a gimme. But as good as Wil Lutz is, he has missed field goals and PAT’s, as well as had kicks blocked. Can anyone say “Cody Parkey”?

Most of those scenarios involve the Rams getting the ball back with no timeouts and less than a minute on the clock. Difficult to score a TD or field goal to tie? Yes. Impossible? No — just ask Patrick Mahomes.

But if we’re going to engage in whatifism, then whataboutism is completely justified (in fact the mention of “whataboutism” is often just a ploy to avoid charges of hypocrisy). What about all the other calls the refs missed which disadvantaged the Rams? Indeed, right up to the muffed PI call on Lewis, it would be hard not to think that the blown calls favored the Saints – from missed delay-of-game calls to flubbed face mask calls.

The earlier in the game they occurred, the more unpredictable the butterfly effect; each missed or blown call has the potential to impact the game in any number of ways.

But it was a blown face mask call against Jared Goff in the Rams’ drive prior to the Lewis/Robey-Coleman encounter that could have significantly impacted the outcome of the game. Rams coach Sean McVay acknowledged it as did a few Twitter pundits, such as Andrew Siciliano.

If that call hadn’t been muffed, the Rams would have had the ball at the one yard line and first down. There’s a good chance they would have scored a touchdown to be up 24-20, forcing the Saints to go for a touchdown themselves. The blown call ultimately led to a fourth down and McVay uncharacteristically chose to go the conservative route and kick a field goal instead of going for the touchdown on fourth and one.

The response of the Twitterati who contended the Saints were robbed was dismissive. The blown face mask call didn’t directly cause the Rams to lose the game. The violation wasn’t as obvious or blatant or flagrant as the muffed PI call. One was a missed call; the other was intentionally called incorrectly. The missed face mask call didn’t occur with less than two minutes left.

But in the “What If” game, the flagrancy of the infraction is irrelevant. As if it matters whether, say, encroachment into the neutral zone is three inches or a foot. Just ask Dee Ford about that. The face mask against Goff may not have been as “blatant” as the PI against Robey-Coleman, but it’s still a penalty which would have resulted in a Rams first down at the one. And as such, cries of “false equivalency” need to be roundly rejected.

In connection with a multitude of pundits describing the missed PI penalty as “the worst NFL call of all time” Colin Cowherd correctly talked about “recency bias”: the muffed PI call was not only blatant, but it was also the most recent. Understandably, for Saints fans, it was the difference between winning and losing. But games aren’t officiated in vacuums.

Stephen A. Smith suggested that the muffed PI call should lead the NFL to allow for replay for all calls (or non-calls) in the final two minutes of a game. But this idea really doesn’t make a lot of sense. What if there is a game-changing mistake with 3 minutes left in the game? What about with 2 minutes and 4 seconds?

One might make the argument that all plays should be reviewable. Get it all right from the beginning and avoid any potential butterfly effects.

And so we come full circle: if every potential call were reviewable, as John Breech of CBS Sports wrote, “Rams coach Sean McVay could have thrown his challenge flag after an obvious face-mask on Jared Goff went uncalled.”

And, very likely, the Rams would still be playing in Super Bowl LIII this Sunday. Not exactly the definition of a “heist”…

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