Blown calls killed Saints

Updated: October 31, 2003, 3:52 PM ET

NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL has informed Saints coaches that referees made three critical incorrect calls -- all costly to the Saints -- in New Orleans' 23-20 overtime loss to Carolina last Sunday.

The first blown call would have, if correct, given the Saints a 2-0 lead. On Carolina's first possession, Jake Delhomme threw a backhanded pass out of his own end zone as he was being brought down.

Referee Mike Carey, the crew chief, initially threw a flag, but then picked it up, ruling that an eligible receiver was in the vicinity. In a post-game report, officials admitted there was no eligible receiver in the area of the incompletion and the play should have resulted in a safety.

The next mistake led directly to a Panthers go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Saints cornerback Fred Thomas was called for defensive pass interference against Walter Young on the play, but officials admitted that Young initiated the contact by pulling Thomas' helmet. Instead of a first-and-goal at the Saints' 18, the Panthers had a first-and-goal at the 1. On the next play, Stephen Davis scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Then in overtime, officials said Panthers linebacker Lester Townes should have been called for defensive holding when he tackled running back Deuce McAllister in pass coverage on the Saints' second play of overtime. No penalty was called, and quarterback Aaron Brooks scrambled for a 2-yard gain. The infraction would have given the Saints an automatic first down at the Carolina 38-yard line. Instead, they faced a third-and-5 at the Carolina 41. New Orleans reached the 37 on third down but failed to convert a fourth-and-1, setting up Carolina's winning drive.

After last Sunday's game, several Saints players complained about the non-call against Townes.

"Sometimes that happens," McAllister said. "We'll probably get an apology this week, but that doesn't help our record."

----< ^DEFENSIVE HEALTH:@ Veteran linebacker Darrin Smith has returned to practice after a one-day battle with vertigo. He said he expects to play Sunday.

"I didn't know what was going on," said Smith, who showed symptoms Tuesday afternoon. "Every time I moved my head, the room would spin. It was constantly spinning. The doctors did some maneuvers that helped me, and today I felt much better."

Saints head athletic trainer Scottie Patton called the condition "benign positional vertigo."

Teammate Orlando Ruff had another diagnosis. "He's got Pittman-itis," Ruff teased, a reference to Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman, who leads Tampa Bay with 465 rushing yards.

Meanwhile, defensive end Darren Howard had pins removed from his fractured right wrist and could return to practice next week. Haslett said Howard is still three to four weeks away from playing.

----< ^PEP TALK:@ Tight end Ernie Conwell said he felt responsible for the loss to Carolina. He met with Coach Jim Haslett on Monday to apologize for missing a block on Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers on the fourth-and-1 play in overtime. Peppers made the tackle that jarred the ball loose from McAllister behind the line of scrimmage.

Conwell's wife, Andrea, had the couple's pastor from their Nashville, Tenn., church call the tight end for a pair of pep talks this week.

"It was hard on me," Conwell said. "I feel responsible ... I'm smart enough to know that games are not won and lost on one play. But that game was in our grasp."

----< ^INJURY REPORT:@ James Fenderson, who sprained a ligament in his left foot, was listed Friday as doubtful for Sunday's game at Tampa Bay. Listed as questionable were: receivers Joe Horn (knee) and Donte Stallworth (quadriceps), guard Kendyl Jacox (knee), and defensive tackles Johnathan Sullivan (knee/calf) and Kendrick Allen (knee). Sedrick Hodge (knee) and Kenny Smith (knee) were listed as probable.

<

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index