Grant Cohn: Easy fixes for NFL officiating

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This is not about the Rams. All credit to them. They played a great game in Sunday’s NFC Championship and are a terrific team. They’re just not the one that deserves to be in the Super Bowl.

The Saints should be in it. They outplayed the Rams, but one missed call by an official changed the outcome and ruined the game. A few hours later, two missed calls tarnished a fantastic AFC Championship game between the Patriots and the Chiefs.

The league wasn’t up to the occasion either time. It’s a shame.

Now, in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, people will talk more about the team that isn’t there (the Saints) than the teams that are (the Rams and Patriots). And instead of praising two cutting-edge organizations, the Rams and the Patriots, people will question the integrity of the league. As they should.

Here’s what happened at the end of the game between the Saints and Rams:

With 1:49 left in regulation, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw a seven-yard pass to wide receiver Tommylee Lewis on third and 10. Lewis was open. Had he caught the ball, he would have picked up the first down. Then, the Saints could have rushed three straight times, could have run the clock all the way down and kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired.

When Brees’ pass still was five yards away from reaching Lewis’ hands, Rams cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman ran straight into Lewis and knocked him down. The pass fell incomplete, and the Saints kicked a field goal with 1:45 remaining. With plenty of time they shouldn’t have had, the Rams got the ball back, drove the field, kicked a field goal, tied the game and won it during an overtime that shouldn’t have happened.

Roby-Coleman made no attempt to turn his head and find the ball before making contact with Lewis, and that should have been the first violation. That’s called face-guarding. Then, Roby-Coleman made contact before the ball arrived, which should have been pass interference. To top it off, he made helmet-to-helmet contact, which should have been a 15-yard penalty. Three violations in one play.

And yet, the official standing five yards away, staring directly at Lewis and Roby-Coleman, threw no flag, giving the Rams new life, a life they didn’t deserve.

The official’s name is Patrick Turner. We still haven’t heard one word from him, nor from the crew’s chief, nor from the league office. They seem to think the scandal will go away next week when people start talking about the Super Bowl.

The scandal won’t go away. It will overshadow these playoffs for years.

The league made matters worse during the AFC Championship. With 7:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, the officials called a roughing-the-passer penalty on Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones for reaching out and gently grazing Tom Brady’s shoulder pad. The gesture couldn’t have knocked out a marshmallow.

The official who threw the flag was standing behind the action and couldn’t see all of it. He “thought” he saw Jones make contact with Brady’s helmet. But as everyone watching in the stadium or on television could see, Jones never touched Brady’s helmet.

That bogus penalty gave the Patriots 15 yards they didn’t earn, and extended their drive, which ended in a go-ahead touchdown.

A few minutes later, after giving the Patriots the lead, the officials helped the Chiefs take it back. With 2:54 left in the fourth quarter, Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley set an illegal pick on Patriots cornerback JC Jackson, who was covering Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

Suddenly, Watkins was wide open, and caught a 38-yard pass. The Patriots tackled him at the two-yard line. Should have been offensive pass interference, but it was nothing. The Chiefs scored a touchdown on the next play.

The officials artificially manufactured 14 points in that game — seven for the Chiefs and seven for the Patriots. Shameful. Those teams deserved officiating that matched the level of their play.

I don’t blame the officials. Their job is extremely difficult, especially now that NFL offenses are so spread out. Officials have to monitor action sideline to sideline from the opening snap to the final whistle. And they don’t get much practice. They call only one game every seven days for 16 weeks plus the preseason. How good can they really be? Football officials should be full-time employees during the season. No brainer.

Officials need help. And the league has the technology to help them.

First, the NFL should allow coaches to challenge any type of play, including penalties and non-calls, as long the coaches still have timeouts and challenges to use.

Second, every stadium should have its own official in a booth who can see all the replays. And if an official on the field blatantly misses a call, the guy in the booth can buzz the official and initiate an instant replay. College football has this system. The NFL should have it, too.

These are easy fixes. It’s a shame the league hasn’t made them already. The league owed more to last Sunday’s games than it gave.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and pressdemocrat.com in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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