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Barry Hirstius

NFL’s Treatment of Saints in Last 72 Hours Needs to Be Scrutinized and Investigated

When it comes to "conspiracy theories", the idea that the NFL would be out to intentionally hurt one of its own 32 teams would seem to be a preposterous and even a DELUSIONAL idea. But given the events and subsequent revelations of the past 72 hours, one has to now actually question if indeed the League has an agenda to harm the New Orleans Saints franchise.

By now, you're probably already aware that during the Saints loss to the Atlanta Falcons this past Thursday Night, that the team was penalized 11 times for 87 yards, 9 of them which gave the Falcons automatic 1st Downs as a result.

For perspective, since 1999 the most 1st downs by penalty in an NFL game was 10; meaning that the Saints were either guilty of making a lot of mistakes (and in some cases they did), or just might have been unfairly scrutinized for their on-field play much more so than their opponent was — whether it was unintentional on the part of head referee Clete Blakeman and his officiating crew or not.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

One call — a roughing the passer call on 2nd year Saints DT Sheldon Rankins — seemed to be completely unwarranted; and the call at the end of the first half where Saints offensive guard Josh LeRibeus was flagged for an illegal formation penalty that negated a made 47-yard field goal by kicker Wil Lutz, appeared to be "ticky tacky" at best.

Such calls normally draw a verbal warning, and not a flag as it was in this case. It ultimately cost New Orleans 3 more points, which it could be surmised ended up being the 3 points that they eventually lost by.

And then of course, there were the massive amount of injuries suffered by the team in the loss at Atlanta.

Rookie running back Alvin Kamara (concussion), linebacker A.J. Klein (groin), guard Senio Kelemete (concussion), defensive lineman David Onyemata (undisclosed), rookie defensive end Trey Hendrickson (ankle) and safety Kenny Vaccaro (groin) not finish the game because of injuries.

Tight end Josh Hill, running back Mark Ingram, wide receiver Michael Thomas and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. also missed some time after being checked out the medical staff.

And while injuries are certainly a part of the game, it appeared that at least 2 of them — the helmet-to-helmet hit by Falcons linebacker Deion Jones on Kamara and the blatant poke in the eye on Thomas by Falcons CB Desmond Trufant — were totally missed or simply not called.

Photo courtesy of John J. Hendrix, Canal Street Chronicles via The NFL Network

And yet DESPITE all of that, the Saints STILL had a chance to win the game at the end.

But QB Drew Brees threw what essentially was a game-losing interception to Falcons linebacker Deion Jones in the end zone with less than 2 minutes remaining when the Saints were hoping to score a game-tying field goal or a go-ahead touchdown.

While no one is going to feel "sorry" for the Saints franchise over Thursday Night's questionable events other than the players and the Saints fans themselves, the events of earlier today call it even further into question.

First, credit New Orleans native, long-time Saints fan, and multiple Saints-related Facebook Group Page owner Joel Smith for his discovery that one of the officials that was on head referee Clete Blakeman's crew was none other than former Falcons player Phil McKinnley — who played offensive tackle for Atlanta from 1976 through 1980 and was himself a part of the storied Saints-Falcons rivalry after he was originally drafted by the Falcons in the 9th Round of the 1976 NFL Draft.

Smith explained his unexpected discovery this way: 

"I saw this picture (of NFL referee #110) in my Facebook Group, so I Googled the ref's jersey number because I wanted to know his name to see if he had a profile on Facebook."

"After Googling it, a Link to Wikipedia came up —  and it showed that he was former Falcons player Phil McKinnley. As you know, a few years ago a referee that was well known for his support as a huge fan of the Saints wasn't allowed to officiate a game that they played against Carolina back during the 2012 season."

"So how does this happen? Isn't this a conflict of interest?"

After Smith put his discovery in a post on Facebook and then Tweeted it out on Twitter, it quickly spread throughout the Internet thanks mostly in part to enraged Saints fans who have been stil stewing over the way Thurday Night's game was officiated, which in turn prompted NBC / Pro Football Talk writer Mike Florio to do a little digging of his own.

Florio said earlier today after his own inquiry to the League office about McKinnley, that the strangest aspect of the assignment was that McKinnely isn’t a member of the crew that worked the game. He’s actually the down judge on Bill Vinovich’s crew, but for whatever reason (?) he was instead assigned to work on Clete Blakeman’s crew.

Photo courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“As per standard procedure, both clubs received the officiating crew for Week 14 on November 30,” NFL spokesman Mike Signora told Florio in an email earlier on Sunday. “The officiating schedule is made by the NFL Officiating staff, so they determine who is assigned to what game.”

“The listing of the officiating crew in the game book is based on the home team’s flipcard that is produced for media and the stats crew at the stadium, which generates the game book,” Signora explained in the email. “That flipcard was incorrect, which is why listing you saw was incorrect.  It has since been corrected.”

The official game book appearing at NFL.com shows that Hugo Cruz, not McKinnely, served as the down judge for the game.

Which obviously was NOT the case.

An NFL referee who just coincidentally used to PLAY for the team whose game he wasn't supposed to be officiating, is concerning to say the very least.

To be fair, McKinnely has officiated 4 other games involving the Saints, and New Orleans had a 3-1 record in those games.

But to officiate a game for his former team against a team that was their hated arch-rivals? That's clearly a QUESTIONABLE move for the League to have allowed in this case.

Florio went on to explain that clerical error notwithstanding, the League apparently has no procedures for ensuring that officials with potential biases won’t be assigned to a given game.

And Florio adds that while it’s one thing to say, “Well, the crew has been assigned to the game and he’s part of the crew,” in this case McKinnely wasn’t part of the crew, and he was hand-picked (despite five years of playing for the Falcons) to work the Saints-Falcons game.

Photo courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

However to be fair so as to not add any fuel to the 'Conspiracy Theory' fires burning among Who Dats, Florio cautioned that none of this means there was any impropriety, notwithstanding the inconsistencies in the calls that were made during the game.

But he notes — it DOES create an appearance of impropriety no different than the appearance of impropriety that prompted the NFL's removal of that Saints fan (Brian Stropolo) from the Saints-Panthers game five years ago.

And that's not all, either.

Another bombshell dropped today when FOX NFL Insider Jay Glazer reported that former Saints employee Mike Cerullo has been hired by the league office. He’s a director of football administration, working in the department that will be responsible for determining the discipline (if any) that could be imposed on Saints head coach Sean Payton for his interactions with officials on Thursday night.

As most Saints fans remember: Cerullo was a former disgruntled Saints employee that former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma outed as the person responsible for giving the League "dirt" on the Saints organization, for their alleged actions which involved giving players financial incentives to intentionally hurt opponents.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

After the allegations were then made public, the league said that Cerullo should be “commended” for coming forward for his honesty (if you believe he was in fact being truthful).

Depending on your point of view, Glazer's revelation today could be viewed as a type of REWARD (although it's now actually 5 years later) for helping the NFL punish the Saints.

Among those who see it this way: Sean Payton himself who Tweeted out his own displeasure after finding out about Glazer's report, not long after the story broke.

Now here's where it needs to be said: 

Today's events combined with the events of the past 72 hours beginning with the game from Thursday Night at Atlanta, need to be scrutinized very carefully and investigated thoroughly. 

Regardless of whatever the NFL may think about Sean Payton or the Saints organization on a personal level, the League CANNOT be allowed to blatantly or openly try to sabotage one of its own teams.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

For a professional sports league that supposedly prides itself (and is obsessed with their public image of) upholding the highest standards of morality and fair play, to discriminate or openly be biased against a particular team or its fan-base is completely unacceptable on all levels and if it's shown to legitimately exist?

Then it should be called out by all responsible sports journalists EVERYWHERE that cover the League on a daily basis.

If there is no evidence to support or suggest that such a bias exists, then fine.

But if the NFL doesn't want a full-scale PUBLIC RELATIONS DISASTER on their hands, then they must take the appropriate measures to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

Unless of course, they simply just don't give a damn.

After the events of the past 72 hours that has given the appearance of having purposely and willfully looked to "make life difficult" for one of its top teams this year as well as one of its most fiercely loyal and passionate fan-bases right along with it — it just might be a good idea if the wonderful folks at the League office in New York City think long and hard about how they treat the Saints franchise, going forward.......

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......

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