New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson said Monday that her team was "unfairly deprived" of the opportunity to reach Super Bowl 53 after game officials missed a clear pass interference penalty on the Los Angeles Rams late in Sunday's NFC Championship game.
"No team should ever be denied the opportunity to reach the title game [or simply win a game] based on the actions, or inactions, of those charged with creating a fair and equitable playing field," Benson said. "As is clear to all who watched the game, it is undeniable that our team and fans were unfairly deprived of that opportunity yesterday."
The Saints had the ball at the Rams 13-yard line with less than two minutes to play in a tie game when Los Angeles cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman slammed into New Orleans receiver Tommylee Lewis with a helmet-to-helmet hit well before a pass from Drew Brees arrived inside the 5.
A pass interference or unnecessary roughness penalty would have given the Saints a first down and enabled to run the clock down before kicking a potential game-winning field goal. Instead, the Saints were forced to settle for Wil Lutz's 31-yard field goal that made it 23-20 with 1:41 left in regulation. The Rams tied the game with 19 seconds left on a 48-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein and went on to win 26-23 in overtime after Zuerlein nailed a 58-yard field goal.
After the game, Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters that league officials had admitted to him that the officiating crew led by referee Bill Vinovich had missed the call.
"Not only was it interference, it was helmet-to-helmet," the coach said. "I don't know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference."
On Monday, Benson said she had been in touch with the NFL and "will aggressively pursue changes in NFL policies to ensure no team and fan base is ever put in a similar position again." Benson did not elaborate on what those changes might be. However, The Washington Post reported Monday that the league would consider making pass interference calls reviewable by instant replay.
The NFL introduced the current "challenge" system for instant replay at the start of the 1999 season, eight years after an earlier, more limited system was scrapped amid concerns about its effect on the flow of the game. The current system is not used to review so-called "subjective" penalties such as pass interference but is used to determine, for example, whether a legal number of players are on the field when a ball is snapped or whether a quarterback threw the ball past the line of scrimmage.
Benson, who has been the sole owner of the Saints since the death of her husband Tom last March, is not the first or most prominent NFL figure to advocate for expanded replay. In 2013, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told ESPN that coaches should be allowed to challenge any play they want.
"I understand that judgment calls are judgment calls, but to say that an important play can’t be reviewed, I don’t think that’s really in the spirit of trying to get everything right and making sure the most important plays are officiated properly," Belichick said at the time. "If it’s offensive holding, if you think one of the offensive linemen tackles your guy as he’s rushing the quarterback, and the ball hasn’t been thrown, they go back and look at it and if it’s that egregious of a violation they would make a call. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t. We have to live with that anyway but now it’s only on certain plays and certain situations.
"It’s kind of confusing for me as to which plays are, and which plays aren’t, challengeable," the five-time Super Bowl champion coach added. "I’m sure it’s confusing to the fans to know what they all are."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.