METAIRIE, La. – On Jan. 20, 2019, the New Orleans Saints fell victim to perhaps the most infamous no-call in NFL history, when officials missed a blatant pass interference penalty against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game that likely would have sent New Orleans to the Super Bowl.
But that season was just the beginning of a bizarre trend that has continued to plague the Saints.
Since 2018, the Saints have finished 30th, 31st, 32nd and tied for 31st in penalties called against their opponents (both accepted and declined).
No other NFL team has finished that low in even three consecutive years since 2001, according to ESPN Stats and Information research. The Elias Sports Bureau can go back further using data on accepted penalties only. According to Elias, the last team to finish in the bottom three of opponents’ accepted penalties for four straight years was the Green Bay Packers (1970-73).
Saints officials declined to comment on the trend, but sources have indicated that the team is aware and disturbed by it.
Meanwhile, a league source explained, “The NFL officiating staff studies penalty data and trends as part of their standard process and procedure and often communicates with clubs about the data, including with the Saints in this instance.”
In theory, opponents’ penalties should balance out since the teams and officials change every week. For instance, the Saints tied for last this season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- who have now finished third, 18th, third, 23rd, third and 31st over the past six years.
However, there are some similar examples in recent history, including:
The Packers have finished in the bottom 10 in each of the past five seasons.
The Minnesota Vikings have finished 20th or worse in each of the past six seasons, including 32-26-29 from 2019-21.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Pittsburgh Steelers have benefitted by finishing 1-8-7-1 over the past four years.
The Arizona Cardinals were the only team to finish among the top three in four straight seasons since 2001 (and top four in five straight years) when they went 4-3-1-2-1 from 2013-17.
When asked if there could be an explanation for such trends, longtime former NFL official and current ESPN analyst John Parry explained games and teams are officiated one play at a time.
“For an official, each play is its own six-second universe. To an official, when players line up they are only positions with numbers on their backs. We focus on the task, not the teams,” said Parry, who worked at least one Saints game almost every year as a referee or side judge from 2000-18. “Officials are expected, trained and evaluated to be as consistently accurate as possible week in and week out.”
There also doesn’t appear to be any link between successful and unsuccessful teams when it comes to opponents’ penalty trends.
Over the past four years, the Saints rank a distant last with 386 total penalties called against their opponents, followed by the Vikings (417), Packers (431), Jacksonville Jaguars (434) and New York Jets (441).
Over that same span, the Steelers have had the most penalties called against their opponents (563), followed by the Tennessee Titans (540), Kansas City Chiefs (533), Cincinnati Bengals (531) and Atlanta Falcons (526).
Saints coach Sean Payton has been outspoken at times about changes he would like to see made with the NFL’s officiating system -- starting with making officials full-time employees. He also helped to spearhead the addition of instant replay for pass interference calls in 2019, though that change lasted for only one season. Payton also suggested the idea of a three-person panel to review replays instead of just one.
Payton was a member of the NFL’s competition committee, which helps to recommend rule changes, from 2017-2021. But he was coy when asked why he decided to step down this season.
“It was the right time,” Payton said in November. “I’ll leave it at that without getting fined.”