Outside of Roger Goodell, the name most cursed by Saints fans since Sunday’s loss in the NFC championship game has been Gary Cavaletto. The side judge has officiated NFL games since 2003 with a résumé that includes 13 playoff games, five conference title games and the 2012 Super Bowl.
Fans across Who Dat Nation have watched and rewatched countless times the egregious missed pass interference call on Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman with less than two minutes remaining in the 26-23 overtime loss. Many have misinterpreted Cavaletto’s charge up the sideline after the play with his hands in a “stop” motion to mean he was calling off a potential penalty flag toss from down judge Patrick Turner.
But Cavaletto didn’t have sole discretion on making that call. In fact, three separate officials on the seven-man crew would have been in position and well within their rights to call a penalty for Robey-Coleman's early hit on Saints wideout Tommylee Lewis.
Without replay available, all three had to make their decision in real-time — and though it’s easy to see in hindsight the play warranted a penalty, there was no discussion among officials on the field. No flag that was after-the-fact picked up. No thought in their minds, despite the boos, beer bottles, popcorn tubs and Mardi Gras beads that rained down on them, that they’d missed a game-altering call.
“As humans, mistakes are powerful opportunities to learn,” said Lee Sanders, assistant executive director in charge of officials for the LHSAA. “We can treat it as a chance to improve and reflect. We want to be perfect and get the call right, but sometimes we don’t.
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“But coaches and officials have the same goal: to get it all right.”
It took only a matter of minutes after Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning kick for the NFL to admit a mistake had been made.
Sean Payton walked into his news conference and announced he had just gotten off the phone with Al Riveron, the NFL senior vice president of officiating, who "couldn't believe" no penalty was called on the play.
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The NFL never confirmed that conversation or addressed the non-penalty until Friday, when the league fined Robey-Coleman for $26,739 while still not discussing how an obvious foul could have been missed.
According to a report by ESPN's Adam Schefter, Payton spoke with Goodell, Al Riveron, NFL executive vice President of football operations Troy Vincent and competition committee chairman Rich McKay later during the week. The NFL believed the explanation that the officials missed the call was sufficient.
Former NFL referee Gene Steratore, who officiated last year's Super Bowl and will serve as a CBS analyst for this year's game, described the no-call as "an egregious mistake in that it is a foul."
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"We don't need to dwell more on the fact since coaches, players and officials all understand the magnitude," Steratore told The Associated Press. "I know the officials agree and admit that it was a mistake. What I hope to always remember is how hard and fast this game is when you get between the lines. You probably are never going to work a perfect game."
But in focusing on the role of Cavaletto, fans have missed the larger picture of just how many officials erred.
With seven officials on the field during each NFL game, each has their own set of responsibilities. The referee, also known as the “white hat” is the team’s crew chief who is stationed in the backfield and signals all penalties, follows the runner on rush plays and focuses solely on the quarterback during passing plays.
The umpire, also set up in the backfield, watches for blocking penalties and has his focus turned to the intended receiver once the ball has been thrown to make sure he’s able to run his route. The down judge and line judge, set up along the line of scrimmage on opposite sides of the field, monitor pre-snap penalties on their respective sides and both follow their closest receivers for the first seven yards of their routes, with the down judge in charge of watching for pass interference specifically.
The field judge and side judge, opposite each other, are in charge of ruling on catches, marking where plays go out-of-bounds and watching for pass interference on their half of the field, while the back judge is stationed deep to rule on catches and fumbles.
Sunday's officiating crew was as follows:
- Bill Vinovich was referee. The referee is the "crew chief;" he lines up 10-12 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
- Bruce Stritesky was umpire. The umpire, like the referee, lines up 10-12 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
- Turner was down judge. He sets up on the sideline, looking directly down the line of scrimmage.
- Rusty Baynes was line judge. He sets up on the sideline, looking directly down the line of scrimmage, on the opposite side of the down judge.
- Tom Hill was field judge. The field judge is on the sideline, 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, in the defensive secondary.
- Cavaletto was side judge. The side judge is on the sideline, 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, in the defensive secondary, opposite the field judge.
- Todd Prukop was back judge. The back judge is in the secondary, 25 yards deep, toward the middle of the field.
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For both Bruce Stritesky and Turner, Sunday was their first conference championship game. Stritesky has worked NFL games since 2006, including eight playoff games. Turner, the most inexperienced of the three, has called NFL games dating to 2014, now with four playoff games under his belt after last week.
The entire crew was deemed uniquely qualified by the NFL to be on the field for Sunday’s contest. The league grades all of its officials every play of every game during the regular season, then places them in Tier I, II or III. Only those who score the highest, in Tier I, are eligible for conference championship assignments.
But those crews are cobbled together with the best individuals, rather than the best few crews, meaning officials throughout the postseason are often working together for the first time all season. Ideally, that shouldn’t lead to any breakdowns in communication or understanding of each other’s roles — but the familiarity and fluidity may be absent.
“I see the benefits (of working together on a consistent crew), but we hope through trainings and teaching officials to learn the mechanics and rules that we create consistency, so that when we come together, we can provide a quality product,” Sanders said.
NFL officials are required to meet in the city where they’re calling a game 24 hours before kickoff. They review both teams’ tendencies and go over any points of emphasis for the week, according to the league. It would be here where any questions on responsibilities would be answered — but those are generally already set in stone.
With those responsibilities in mind, and even with any unfamiliarity they may have felt with each other, Turner, Cavaletto and Stritesky could have all individually acted and thrown a flag on the play. Had all three of three of them witnessed a penalty, we could have seen three yellow flags fly into the air, indicating the same foul from different parts of the field.
But when none of the three initially threw a flag, it was unlikely they would hold a brief discussion to determine whether an infraction was committed.
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Officials at the NFL level, Sanders said, have undergone rigorous training and are rarely uncertain of the correct call. The absence of a flag thrown signifies their insistence on a lack of a foul, not an uncertainty of one.
“It’s a judgment call by the officials. I personally have not seen the play,” Vinovich, the head referee, said immediately after the game.
Since Sunday, images have widely circulated via social media — often by Rams fans — showing several instances of other calls missed by Vinovich’s crew, whether it was a facemask against Rams quarterback Jared Goff or a delay-of-game penalty on the Saints.
Some have speculated that those, along with the missed pass-interference call, are proof of the NFL’s intention to let the players, not whistles, decide a game with such huge implications.
But Sanders contended he has never encountered that way of thinking in his officiating days.
“As game officials, our primary duties are being fair, and we hope the way rules are enforced are the same week-to-week,” he said. “It would be a disservice done to the game if major adjustments were made in how rules were applied depending on the week.”
Though Sanders, a professed Saints fan, agreed the missed call Sunday was obvious, he did hint at one reason that might explain Turner, Cavaletto and Stritesky’s decisions to keep their flags in their pockets.
“A mentor said to me long ago that he would rather us make a sin of omission than commit a sin of commission,” Sanders said. “Meaning he’d rather us not make a call when there should have been one than give someone a foul when there wasn’t one to be called.”
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At its simplest form, officiating at all levels is a subjective job with very strict instructions. Officials are trained to follow those to the strictest possible standards, but without rules yet in place to review penalties in the NFL, officials only have one brief moment to view a play before making a call or swallowing their whistle.
That single moment, with millions of sports fans watching you, makes for a hard job. The officials want nothing more than to be forgotten as soon as the clock strikes zero.
Despite their best intentions, this crew may instead go down in lore with the likes of Don Denkinger and his incorrect “safe” call in the 1985 World Series, as well as Bill Leavy’s pair of questionable calls during the 2006 Super Bowl between the Seahawks and Steelers.
“We tell our guys to call the obvious and not to go looking for things that aren’t. ... If something needs to be dealt with, enforce the rules," Sanders said. "But don’t just guess because it looked awkward.”