Los Angeles Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman makes contact with New Orleans Saints’ Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrives during the NFL NFC championship game, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. The NFL admitted after the game that Lewis should have been flagged for pass interference. 

Ridgeland resident Don Shanks officiated football in the Southeastern Conference for 28 years, often making crucial calls that determined who went to bowl games and who won them.

Shanks was back judge and then a side judge, meaning he faced many calls similar to the one that was so clearly missed in the Los Angeles Rams’ tainted 26-23 victory over the New Orleans Saints Sunday in New Orleans.

Rick Cleveland

Surely, you saw it. The game was tied at 20, and the Saints were driving toward what might have been a winning score with under two minutes remaining. Drew Brees threw a pass down the sideline to Tommylee Lewis. Before the ball got there, Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman clobbered Lewis, just nailed him.

Robey-Coleman never looked back for the ball. He hit Lewis a split-second before the ball would have arrived. What’s more he hit Lewis helmet-to-helmet and could have been called for a personal foul.

“Interference at the very least,” Shanks said. “Blatant interference. It was probably the most devastating call or no-call I’ve seen, given the situation. They just missed it.”

If the officials – one of whom was just a few steps away – had made the correct call, the Saints could have taken a knee three times and then kicked a winning field goal with under 20 seconds remaining. Instead, they kicked the field goal with one minute, 41 seconds left, and the Rams had plenty of time to drive for a tying field goal, which they did. The Rams then won it in overtime.

Shanks says the blame lies with more than just one official.

Don Shanks

“I guarantee you more than just one official saw that play well enough to make the appropriate call,” Shanks said. “When the ball goes in the air, several official’s eyes follow the ball. That’s where, at the very least, you go over an try to help your cohort. You say: ‘Are you sure we didn’t have pass interference on that play. I had a clear view. It sure looked like we did.’

“My guess, from experience, is that you probably had two of three sets of eyes who clearly saw what happened,” Shanks added.

Actually, we had over 70,000 fans in the Superdome and millions more in national TV audience who saw it. Even Robey-Coleman admitted afterward that interference should have been called.

“That’s the call you live for,” Shanks said. “That’s a clear-cut call, no doubt about it. They just swallowed their whistles. They didn’t make an obvious call. I don’t know what else you can say about it.”

“Swallowing your whistle” is a euphemism often used by coaches and players to say that an official choked, that the official didn’t have the courage to make the call.

“There is courage involved,” Shanks said. “You have to have the guts to make the right call. In a tight situation at the end of the game, you have to want the ball to come your way.”

It’s much like a fielder in baseball. Some infielders want the game-deciding ground ball to be hit in their direction. Others pray it is hit elsewhere.

We see this all the time in sports. For example, at the end of a close basketball game, two different types of players exist: the ones who want to take the game-deciding shot and the ones who will avoid taking it. Sometimes, comically, you see players pass the ball around like a hot potato at the end. Nobody wants to take the deciding shot.

“At the end of the game, down in the red zone, you have to hope the ball will come your way. That’s what you have been trained for,” Shanks said. “That’s the way you have to be. This is your moment in time. You have to be ready. You have to want to make the call.”

Psychologists tell us it is human nature that we view acts of omission as less harmful than acts of commission. In other words, we see inaction as less blameworthy or harmful than action.

As we saw Sunday, inaction can be just as devastating, just as wrong.

Either way, it’s human error. And we had plenty of that Sunday – from the players, coaches and officials. That goes for both championship games. Nevertheless, no error was as glaring – none more consequential – than the no-call involving Robey-Coleman and Lewis.

Twenty years from now, that’s how this Saints-Rams game will be remembered. Sad.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.