LOS ANGELES — For a few fleeting seconds, Cameron Jordan forgot his team’s star-crossed history with NFL referees.
As he scooped the ball off the Los Angeles Coliseum turf with only green grass between him and the end zone, the New Orleans Saints defensive end was certain he was poised to score a go-ahead second-quarter touchdown in Sunday’s NFC title game rematch against the Rams.
“From my perspective, it was a fumble from the jump,” Jordan said. “That’s why there was no slowdown from the [Rams]. Everyone was full go. Everyone assumed it was a fumble. Well, I shouldn’t say everybody.”
Indeed there were a few people who saw Trey Hendrickson’s strip of Rams quarterback Jared Goff differently, and as happens all too often to the Saints, they each wore black and white striped shirts. Referees initially ruled Goff had thrown an incomplete pass and blew the play dead as Jordan was rumbling down the sideline on his way to the end zone.
A replay review clearly showed that Hendrickson had knocked the ball out of Goff’s hand before the quarterback’s arm began moving forward, but by then the damage was done. Because the referees blew the whistle instead of letting the play continue, Jordan’s 87-yard fumble return for a touchdown was wiped out and the Saints instead took possession at their own 13-yard line.
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Every Saints player acknowledged that the blown call was far from the only reason for their 27-9 loss to the Rams, but that didn’t make the costly mistake any easier for them to swallow. This is the third straight game that the Saints have been the victim of a high-profile officiating error, the third straight time it’s sometimes felt like they were playing 11-on-18.
It started with last January’s infamous missed pass interference call that helped the Rams beat the Saints to advance to the Super Bowl and led to groundbreaking replay rule changes during the offseason. Then referees mistakenly ran 15 extra seconds off at a key juncture of Monday’s season opener, hurting the Saints’ chances of getting in position to score before halftime.
When a replay of Hendrickson’s strip sack appeared on the Los Angeles Coliseum scoreboard, Saints fans in attendance unleashed thunderous boos. Saints coach Sean Payton was still steaming at halftime about the blown call, telling Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews, “I'm so tired of being on the wrong side of it.”
While Payton had calmed down by his postgame news conference, Jordan was still seething about the premature whistle. He said any “Foot Locker” referee will tell you to let the play play out before correcting himself. He also lamented that the NFL employs older referees who “were in their prime maybe a decade ago.”
“When people are at the top of their craft, usually that doesn’t happen, right?” Jordan asked.
No disrespect to footlocker https://t.co/YhiBokGL8Z— cameron jordan (@camjordan94) September 16, 2019
Frustrating as being on the wrong end of another blown call had to be for the Saints, they leave Los Angeles with much bigger worries. Chief among them is the health of future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, who left Sunday’s game with a first-quarter thumb injury severe enough that he could not grip a football thereafter.
Brees hurt his thumb when he made contact with Rams pass rusher Aaron Donald’s hand. The Saints quarterback underwent X-rays after the game and intends to see a hand specialist in Los Angeles on Sunday night.
Asked how severe the injury is, Brees said, “I have no idea. I really don’t.”
“It’s all up in the air,” he added.
Backup Teddy Bridgewater completed 17 of 30 passes for 165 yards in Brees’ absence, but the Saints struggled to sustain drives with him under center. Too many costly penalties were a major factor, as was the Saints’ inability to keep the Rams’ defensive front seven out of the backfield.
“Teddy came in ready to go,” Payton said. “I didn’t think we played particularly well around him. When we watch that tape tomorrow, it’s not going to be pleasant for some guys.”
The film room won’t be any easier for the Saints’ defense, which struggled to cover the Rams’ talented receiving corps and yielded three second-half touchdowns. The biggest play was a fourth-quarter, 66-yard pass to Cooper Kupp in which he broke five tackles to set up a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Goff.
While Jordan acknowledged the Saints played poorly in the second half, he couldn’t help but wonder if the game might have gone differently had his fumble return resulted in a touchdown. Instead of a 10-3 lead, the Saints failed to convert a fourth-and-1 at their own 49-yard line and the Rams capitalized with a field goal in the dying seconds of the first half.
“That’s a 10-point swing,” Jordan said. “Seems like that’s affecting the game, right?”
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