It takes a lot for this space to turn on the crews. This year has been particularly troubling for officiating, although a fair share of the criticism has been a mixture of trumped-up rhetoric and outrage over quick judgement calls without the benefit of replay. Improved technology that offers crisp images of every call to the groupthink of social media that detects any stray blade of grass have been contributing factors to the worsening perceptions towards officiating. Then, there are the actual miscalls. Although the record will show that all errors in officiating technically have equal weight, there are some that have extra gravity.
The officiating department has been known to put their better crews in the showcase games of the week. Under the white-hot spotlight of Monday Night Football, crews have withered rather than flourished this season. With the extra scrutiny that comes with the game in isolation, mistakes become magnified and the fans lose confidence in the crews.
As the commissioner weighs options to take action to improve officiating in the season’s final stretch, the Bills-Patriots game just intensified the drumbeat against the officials. When there are major errors on a major stage, change seems to be inevitable.
Inadvertent whistle. At the beginning of the third quarter, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw to receiver Danny Amendola, but as the pass floated to it target, a whistle blew the play dead.
Line judge Gary Arthur — who returned last week from a lengthy injury absence — was interfered on the sideline by Bills coach Rex Ryan. Whether Arthur lost track of the ball or if he reflexively went for his whistle to call out Ryan is irrelevant. It happened, and there is nothing that can be done about it other than own up to it. It is the cardinal sin of officiating, maybe only outranked by dropping a down. It is further compounded by the fact that there is no equitable resolution to Control-Z the whistle.
If a team is in possession of the ball, there are two options: take the ball at the spot of the whistle or replay the down. If the ball is loose due to a pass, kick, or fumble, the only option is to replay the down.
Despite the ball being in the air, referee Gene Steratore huddled with his crew and determined it was in Amendola’s possession at the whistle. Since replay cannot get involved in an inadvertent whistle by rule, the crew must reconstruct the scenario (which, by nature of the inadvertent whistle, is already muddled) and make the best determination. “In our judgement, we thought the whistle came a little later after the ball was thrown,” Steratore told a pool reporter after the game. “So we felt that the receiver had possession at the time of the whistle, so basically we went to that spot, which we determined was about the 45-yard line.”
This is a logical and supportable call — the crew can’t be certain the ball was still in the air, so they will give the benefit of the doubt and call it dead at the catch spot. If any of the officials was absolutely certain that the ball was not even close to its target, that official must speak up, and, instead, the down is repeated. If Brady was definitely in possession of the ball, then the dead-ball spot would be prior to the pass, and the Patriots would opt to have the down repeated.
The bench interference foul was assessed from the dead-ball spot. Even if the down was replayed, the 15-yarder would be assessed by rule.
That said, Arthur had his whistle in his hand, a technique that minimizes the chance of an inadvertent whistle, but ultimately it did not help in this case.
Sideline play runs out clock. Although the inadvertent whistle is inexcusable, it is at least understandable. It is a mistake for which there is no eraser. However, a breakdown at the end of the game left ESPN announcer Mike Tirico lamenting, “What a screwed up night of plays and officiating this was. Wow!”
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins caught the ball for the Bills near the sideline. With two seconds on the clock, he did what any player in that situation would do: go for the sideline at the sacrifice of gaining additional yardage. Watkins fell out of bounds, but second-year head linesman Ed Walker ruled that Watkins had surrendered himself as down and not advancing. Steratore in the post-game interview:
What we had as far as the last play with Buffalo’s reception was that the receiver gave himself up voluntarily in the field of play. When that occurs and we deem that the runner, which he would have been after he maintained possession after his reception, he was now a runner, had given himself up in the field of play. Then fact that he scoots out of bounds is not as important. We wound the clock. It was a judgement call by that head linesman that he felt like he gave himself up in the field of play. It’s not a reviewable play. So winding the clock or stopping the clock is not something we review. So, in his judgement, he deemed that the runner gave himself up in the field of play voluntarily, which does put him down by contact in the field, so he wound [the clock].
Where to begin?
This could not possibly be “down by contact” without any defensive contact, rather it is a “declared dead ball” in the absence of a down-by-contact, out-of-bounds, incomplete-pass or other similar ruling.
The surrender technique is when a player essentially gives up on the play — either by taking a knee or remaining on the ground without any effort to advance. In referee’s parlance, an “advance” can be backward, particularly in a sideline play where lateral yardage is gained just as much as goal-ward yardage. As long as the runner is voluntarily ceding territory in the advance, his forward progress spot moves back with him. If the position of the ball is moving, there is no way that the runner has given up an opportunity to advance. He is retreating, not surrendering.
A surrendered player is also not subject to be tackled, but a player heading for the sideline must be touched down or contacted, whichever is appropriate, in order to keep the ball in bounds. A player pushed backwards out of bounds may also be ruled “in bounds” if the forward progress spot is in the field of play.
While replay can intervene in a clock operator error (if the error is more than two seconds at the expiration of the half and many other caveats), there is no review to rule the ball dead at :02 when Watkins goes out of bounds. Since the signal is to wind the clock, the clock operator did not make an error. If the side judge determined that Watkins should be ruled out of bounds, and if he noted there was time remaining on the clock, the two officials could add the time back in a conference. Also, if the side judge and head linesman had conflicting signals, and the stoppage wins out in conference, it appears the rule will allow the stop signal to be reviewed.
The explanation of this play, though, has made the error worse, because it is not rooted in an applicable rule or sensible in any semblance of basic football time-management strategy. It is a perversion of the rules to cover for Walker at best. It is a complete lack of reasoning or a misapplication of the rules at worst.
Either way, it erodes the confidence the fans and teams have in the crews’ abilities which damns the 2015 season as a lost cause for officiating.
Image: Buffalo Bills team photo
Gene Steratore interview with pool reporter
Q: Talking about the inadvertent whistle play – who blew the whistle and why was the whistle blown?
Steratore: I think as the quarterback started to get near the sideline and press the line judge, who was the official right near the quarterback, [Gary Arthur]. I think as Tom [Brady] released the football, the line judge lost track of maybe where the ball was at that point and almost by its own definition, inadvertently blew the whistle. What we do from that point onward is find out where the football was at the time the whistle was blown. We deemed it to be, in our judgement, received by the receiver, as we stated, at the 45-yard line, I believe. And then by rule, what you do with that, or once you determine in your judgement where the ball was at the time of the whistle, if it’s in a possession of a player, which we deemed it to be, you take all fouls then, that would have been on that play and you enforce them from that spot of where the ball would be declared dead by the inadvertent whistle. We had a bench-area obstruction foul then, that we actually tacked on to the spot of, I believe we went from the 45 to the 40-yard line, because we tacked on the 15-yard foul from that spot. So that’s what you do with the play, as it goes by rule.
Q: One of the follow-up questions was about that bench penalty.
Q: Who interfered on the sideline to lead to the penalty? How did that happen?
Steratore: Don’t really get any defining people. We really just, for our sake, anybody that would be in any obstructing, you know, situation that would be related to the team, in any regard. But, I don’t ask specifics. It’s irrelevant for us really, when we enforce it.
Q: When you say obstructing, could you clarify what you mean by that?
Steratore: Yeah, could have stepped in front of, it can be anything that would create the official or not allow the official to officiate the play. That could be a multitude of things. Could step in front of him, he could inadvertently bump him – when an official’s covering a play, he could actually bump into someone. So, there’s a lot of different, you know, scenarios for that. So what we do is just basically call that an obstruction from a bench personnel.
Q: On the inadvertent whistle, when you huddling to determine when the whistle blew, whether it was in the receiver’s hands or if it was still in the air… How did you determine that and what would have changed if you determined if it was before?
Steratore: If the ball would have been in the air, we would have gone back to the previous spot.
Q: And replay the down?
Steratore: Yes. Yes, exactly. But in our judgement, we thought the whistle came a little later after the ball was thrown, so we felt that the receiver had possession at the time of the whistle, so basically we went to that spot, which we determined was about the 45-yard line.
Q: Could you clarify what was seen on the last play to rule the player [in bounds]?
Steratore: What we had as far as the last play with Buffalo’s reception was that the receiver gave himself up voluntarily in the field of play. When that occurs and we deem that the runner, which he would have been after he maintained possession after his reception, he was now a runner, had given himself up in the field of play. Then fact that he scoots out of bounds is not as important. We wound the clock. It was a judgement call by that head linesman that he felt like he gave himself up in the field of play. It’s not a reviewable play. So winding the clock or stopping the clock is not something we review. So, in his judgement, he deemed that the runner gave himself up in the field of play voluntarily, which does put him down by contact in the field, so he wound [the clock].
Dean Blandino interview on NFL Network
Spero Dedes: Take us through the play and what happened with the inadvertent whistle.
Dean Blandino: The line judge lost track of the football and he blew his whistle inadvertently. That’s a mistake and we shouldn’t have blown the whistle. So by rule, they look at where the football was when the whistle was blown. They determined that Amendola had the football when the whistle was blown, so then the team with possession gets an option. They can either take the ball at that spot or they can replay the down. So New England decided to take the ball at the spot which was more beneficial to them. And then there was a penalty on the play called against Coach Ryan so that penalty by rule is also enforced from the spot where the whistle blew. So that’s how they came to that decision.
Dedes: Dean you are watching these games like the rest of the country is. Where you as confused as we were as to why the whistle would have been blown in that situation?
Blandino: Sure. Just by definition, an inadvertent whistle is a whistle that shouldn’t have been blown. So you are wondering why. And it has happened before. This isn’t the first time an official loses track of where the football is and thinks that the play is over and blows his whistle. We do want our officials to blow their whistle when the play is over. So you are wondering why that happened. But then once it did happen, the crew I thought did a good job of handling where they were going to put the football. Because again, both teams are effected by the whistle blowing. Both teams stopped, and so we can’t assume what would have happened and so we gave the ball to the Patriots at the spot of the catch and then enforced the penalty from there.
Dedes: Were you in communication with the officials as they tried to figure things out?
Blandino: Not during the inadvertent whistle. I’m only allowed to discuss things once we go to replay reviews. So they have to sort that out on the field so I was not in communication or communicating with the referee during that time period.
Dedes: On if the complexity of the rulebook and the length of official conferences is something he is aware of.
Blandino: It’s absolutely on our mind and this isn’t new this year in terms of wanting to simplify the rules. Obviously the rules are in place for good reason and the rulebook has evolved over the years as the game has evolved. But we are certainly looking to simplify things whenever we can and whenever a rule change is put in, you always have to take into consideration the officials and can this rule be officiated consistently and accurately. So that’s something we take very seriously and we certainly don’t want an overabundance of crew conferences and we want our officials to be efficient in that area. But there are going to be situations where they do have to get together; certainly the inadvertent whistle took some time to sort out and I think that’s to be expected. But it’s definitely something that we’re aware of and want to make sure we can simplify the rules when possible.