Saints Falcons Football

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton speaks to umpire Ramon George during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore) ORG XMIT: GAMS134

A pair of stories came to light Sunday that likely will make people in New Orleans look at the NFL sideways.

The league used a former Atlanta Falcons player on the officiating crew for the Saints game Thursday against the Falcons, and it hired a key member of the so-called bounty scandal to work for the league office.

Whether actual conflicts of interest exist is up for debate, but the optics are going to raise some eyebrows.

Although he wasn’t listed as part of Thursday’s officiating crew distributed to the media, former Falcons player Phil McKinnely served as the down judge during the game in Atlanta.

McKinnely, who played for the Falcons from 1976-1980, is not typically part of Clete Blakeman’s crew. The league said the failure to list him was a mistake.

"As per standard procedure, both clubs received the officiating crew for Week 14 on Nov. 30. The officiating schedule is made by the NFL Officiating staff, so they determine who is assigned to what game,” a league spokesman said. “The listing of the officiating crew in the game book is based on the home team’s flip card that is produced for media and the stats crew at the stadium, which generates the game book. That flip card was incorrect, which is why the listing you saw was incorrect. It has since been corrected on (the NFL's game statistic and information system)."

McKinnely has worked 13 Saints games and 20 involving the Falcons throughout his career. He was the official who initially ruled Denver’s Justin Simmons inbounds on a blocked extra point returned for a game-winning score when New Orleans lost to the Broncos last season, though the play was later reviewed. He also worked New Orleans’ first game against Carolina and another one against Tampa Bay this season. The Saints won both games.

The league has taken measures to avoid these conflicts of interest in some other cases. Craig Wrolstad, who's from Washington state, hasn’t worked a Seattle Seahawks game since being elevated to referee in 2014. But back judge Steve Freeman, who played for the Bills for more than a decade, has worked 15 Buffalo games dating back to 2001.

Meanwhile, Fox’s Jay Glazer reported Sunday morning that the NFL has hired former Saints employee Mike Cerullo as a director of football administration.

Cerullo, who was a defensive assistant for the Saints, was the whistleblower who provided the evidence needed for the league to start its bounty investigation against the Saints in 2011. The team said he held a grudge against the organization for being fired.

Cerullo has since worked as Princeton's director of football operations before being hired by the league. The league office said he has no input on disciplinary matters.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton responded to the news on Twitter.

“Troubling report by @JayGlazer regarding league hiring of fired @Saints employee,” Payton wrote. “Unbelievable.”

The Saints also have continued to be critical of the officiating during Thursday’s game against the Falcons.

"You can look at everything from the roughing-the-passer call, or the lack thereof," Payton said. "I know what that rule's in place for, what's in place for what happened with Sheldon (Rankins) the other day? Keep going, defensive holding, pick up a play. I'm not going to sit and go through every call; it's frustrating when you have a game that isn't being decided on the field like it's supposed to, (when) you have a crew make so many mistakes in one event." 

He continued by saying it has been a problem all season.

"That's what's frustrating is good teams are out there fighting hard," he said. "But the calls, as I went through them, and the ones that weren't called, too many inconsistencies. "I think it's been a problem all year; it's something that's going to have to be addressed from a leadership standpoint at the top in our league office."

Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​