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January 21, 2019
It was the call heard ‘round the world.
Well, more accurately, it was the call NOT heard ‘round the world.
On a third-and-ten with under two minutes of play left in the 2019 NFC Championship game and the score tied at 20-20, Drew Brees attempted to connect with wide receiver Tommylee Lewis along the right sideline. As Lewis prepared to make the catch, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman hit him in a clear case of both pass interference and helmet-to-helmet contact that resulted in an incomplete pass. The ball was catchable. Robey-Coleman failed to turn around to make the play. The criteria for pass interference were all in place.
Yet, no flag was thrown.
Had the penalty been called, the Saints could have burned time off the clock and kicked a field goal to take the lead with hardly any time left, forcing the Rams to scramble to keep their hopes alive. Unless the Rams managed to pull off a miracle, the Saints would have likely secured a victory that would have sent them to Atlanta for the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance in history.
Instead, the Saints were forced to kick a field goal with ample time left on the clockーtime that Los Angeles used to bring the game into overtime, where kicker Greg Zuerlein booted a 57-yard field goal to send the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.
Of course, with every game-defining moment like this one comes a barrage of questions from fans and viewers alike. What if the referees had called that penalty? What if the Saints had made it to the Super Bowl? How will the NFL respond? Will the league begin to allow reviewing of penalties? Will it overhaul its officiating crews? Is the NFL really rigged?
Truthfully, there are no definite answers to any of these questions. Maybe the Saints would have run the clock down and made a field goal had they gotten a first down off of that PI. Maybe the Saints would have gone on to beat the Patriots and win Brees one last ring before he likely retires in the next couple of seasons. Maybe the league wanted the Rams in the Super Bowl to attempt to boost its market in Los Angeles. Maybe the Saints could and should have done more in the first place to prevent the game from coming down to one call. I guess we’ll never really know.
That missed call will go down as possibly the worst officiating blunder in NFL history. It will sting for years and years to come. If you’re a Saints fan, the scene probably replayed in your head as you attempted to sleep that night. It was the first thing on your mind the next morning. It was all you thought about all day.
They say that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Right now, the emotional state of most Louisianians can be likened to somewhere in those first four stages. After all, how is a fan supposed to respond after watching his or her team miss out on a shot at the Lombardi Trophy two years in a row off of heartbreaking, split-second, game-defining moments?
While the ranting and the complaints to the league and the online petitions may help to cope with such moments, it is time to move into that acceptance stage, because in the midst of all the hypotheticals remains one tough reality: the Saints are not in the Super Bowl, and nothing can change that now.
Acceptance of this missed chance at a Super Bowl hurts. Despite the heartache, though, the 2018-2019 season was undoubtedly a fantastic one for the Black and Gold. It had its fun moments, and it certainly had its stressful ones. Above all, it revealed a significant improvement and a promising future for many areas of the team.
Perhaps the team’s biggest storyline of the 2018-2019 season was the MVP-caliber play by now 40-year-old Brees, who finished with 364 completions on 489 attempts in the regular season, resulting in a 74.4% completion percentageーthe highest in the league. He additionally closed out the regular season with 3,992 total passing yards, 32 touchdowns, only 5 interceptions and a league-high quarterback rating of 115.7.
In a historic moment on Oct. 8 against the Washington Redskins, Brees became the NFL’s all-time passing yards leader, breaking Peyton Manning’s record on a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith.
Simultaneous to having a record-breaking season, though, 40-year-old Brees began to show clear signs of his age. For example, on the first play of the Saints’ divisional playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Brees under-threw wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., on a deep pass, resulting in an interception that kicked off a 14-0 start for the Eagles. A few more underthrown balls could be spotted during the NFC Championship as well.
Though it has been in discussion for several seasons now and made some progress with the addition of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the roster, the question of whether it is time to seriously begin searching for Brees’s heir seems to be gaining relevance. There is no denying that Brees is getting close to retirement. Will the Saints look inside the current lineup of NFL quarterbacks, or will they keep an eye on potential college standouts like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence?
Behind Brees’s phenomenal season was an equally phenomenal performance by the team’s offensive line, who finished the regular season as the second-best in the NFL. The offensive line allowed 52 hits on the quarterback, the lowest in the league, and gave up 20 sacks, the second-lowest in the league.
The defense has certainly shown improvement from previous seasons, where it sometimes ranked dead last in various defensive categories. It boasts an impressive linebacker corps with the likes of Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone. Rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport proved his potential alongside veteran Cameron Jordan and proved why the Saints were willing to trade so much to move up to draft him.
The thorn in the side of the Saints defense remains its secondary, though, which cannot seem to find its rhythm.
The Saints certainly have their work cut out for them in the offseason, especially with one of the lowest available salary cap spaces in the NFL and the lack of first-round, third-round and fourth-round picks in the upcoming NFL Draft.
So yes, the missed call for the ages will never not hurt and will never not leave what feels like a thousand hypothetical questions unanswered, but there is no reason to be angry at the Saints 2018-2019 season as a whole.
A 7-9 team just two years ago, the Saints have now won the NFC South and earned playoff spots two years in a row, solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the NFL. With a chip on their shoulders from two heartbreaking playoff losses in a row, they have more motivation than ever to come back even stronger next season.
The Saints are a team defined by resilience. They’re led by a quarterback whose career should have been over after a shoulder injury. The team is based in a city that suffered unspeakable devastation in 2005 and has since begun to bounce back and remain strong through it all. Resilience has always been at the heart of the team, and it always will.
It hurts now, but the Saints will go marching in once again.