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Football Zebras > 2009 > Week 11 > Steratore crew defeated in Monday night game

Steratore crew defeated in Monday night game

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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.

Steratore: Yes.

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.

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Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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41 thoughts on “Steratore crew defeated in Monday night game

  1. Can someone explain how the Buffalo pass play just before their first field goal was not DPI on NE? It looked to me like the NE defender was 1.) face guarding, 2.) was not looking for the ball since it hit him in the back, and 3.) made contact with the receiver keeping him from coming back for the ball.

  2. Terry, because it is the Patriots and despite the whole fluff-fluff from their owner about the league and Goodell they are still buddies. The Pats get the best of 99% of the calls in their games and that’s why its a huge media event when ONE goes the other way either correctly or incorrectly.

  3. Terry, 1. Faceguarding is legal in the nfl. 2. See 1. 3. The defender has a right to space and play the ball as well. If the ball is underthrown he doesnt have to get out of the way to let thereceiver come back,

  4. Terry, 1. Faceguarding is legal in the nfl. 2. See 1. 3. The defender has a right to space and play the ball as well. If the ball is underthrown he doesnt have to get out of the way to let thereceiver come back.

  5. “The Glenn” and Pats haters can stick it, because Patriots fans hate you, haters — and add Goodell, the NFL and ESPN, who have all conspired against the SUPER BOWL CHAMPION PATRIOTS out of envy, higher ratings, and yes, you have tiny little sticks. The Pats got hosed last week on a phantom “hold” against the Giants and were royally screwed at home last night. It doesn’t matter. You’re all losers. Whining, baby, losers.

  6. Stike, You sound like perhaps you need a hug.

    And also to stop using the word “hater”. LOL!

    But it IS nice to know that Pats fans can rally up some righteous indignation about getting “hows” and “screwed” while being undefeated and getting the benefit of 99% of the calls in their games.

    Have a nice day!

  7. Can you explain how the whistled play being called a catch is “logical and supportable” if they said it was “after the ball was thrown” and not something like “after the catch was made”.

    If there is doubt about possession in this situation shouldn’t the play return to the previous spot?

  8. The Glenn…99% of the calls? The partriots LITERALLY had a 70 yard touch down pass taken away by the officials. Or did you miss that part?

  9. Thank you for the commentary. I turned the game off off as soon as it was clear that the ruling was final, for better or worse, so this thorough analysis helps.

    My lingering question is how Brady was ending failed plays by flinging the ball here there and everywhere, with nary a receiver in sight, but was not once flagged for intentional grounding. I don’t necessarily dismiss the “because he’s Tom Brady” explanation, but is that really all there is to it? Sometimes he was hit mid-throw, but often he was untouched in the (collapsing) pocket with a defender barrelling toward him in his line of sight. He landed one of those about five yards in front of himself and just behind a lineman still blocking around the line of scrimmage, the receivers long since having run their routes downfield. I wish I’d noted the time on that one.

  10. Why has nobody said anything about the 15 seconds that ticked off while Steratore was explaining something on the field with around 1:20 left? There was also a spot before that when the clock should have stopped.

    As far as the inadvertent whistle, it’s idiotic and what the refs are supposed to do is just as stupid. If the Bills intercepted a pass and the whistle is blown, it seems like New England would get the ball back and the down would be replayed.

    I also don’t get why the NCAA can have a much smoother system that takes less time, gets more calls right, and allows for more to be reviewed.

  11. Karen-if a QB gets out the tackle box intentional grounding cannot be called and the QB can throw it away without penalty. Most of the time last night this is the case.

  12. Terry – Faceguarding was taken out of the rulebooks over a decade ago. The defender doesn’t have to turn around to look for the ball. The contact came AFTER the ball had hit the defender in the back. Not to mention that the defender has as much right to the space he is occupying as the defender.

  13. The Glenn – The Patriots do not get the benefit of 99% of the calls. Claiming so is total BS on your part. Since Goodell took over, the Patriots have regularly gotten the short end of the flags and discipline with the culmination being the ridiculous “Camera-Gate” and “DeflateGate” creations.

  14. Todd- You want to talk about the Game clock? Lets take a look at the incompletion that was reviewed and ruled a completion? They stopped the clock because it was ruled incomplete. Then they reviewed the play and the ruling was over-turned. It was ruled a completed pass and Watkins was declared down by contact inbounds. By rule, because he was declared down by contact inbounds, the game clock should have started the same time as the play clock. It didn’t. It didn’t start until the ball was snapped to Taylor with only about 10 seconds left on the play-clock.

  15. Thanks for the explanation. Shows you how old I am, along with many of the announcers because I know I have seen Aaron Rogers throw passes short and the defender gets a dpi called on him for doing what I saw last night and the announcers always say it was because he was not looking back for the ball and just playing the receiver. I’m going to pay closer attention to these from now on, thanks again!

  16. Everyone felt cheated last night! I disagree that the “inadvertent whistle” was “understandable” – not it isn’t! And officials allowing so many late hits on Brady was not understandable either!

  17. I agree with Terry’s comment about PI, (which was on Chung). Both hands in the receivers face, back to the play, and THE FREAKIN’ BALL HITS HIM IN THE BACK! If that’s not PI, what is?

  18. Chris, the procedure after an inadvertent whistle depends on whether the ball was in player possession, or loose at the time of the whistle.

    When the whistle is blown, if the ball is loose, (during a pass, kick, or fumble) the down is replayed automatically.

    If the whistle is while the ball is possessed, the team in posession (not necessarily the offense) has the choice to take the result, where the ball was when the whistle was blown, OR replay the down. In your situation, If the whistle came after an interception, the defense would obviosly take the first option.

  19. Peter, Ryan wasn’t even looking at the SJ he was watching the field the entire play and yelling at his player to get Brady.

    The official made a huge mistake and the only one who know’s why is that official. Everyone else from the league is just defending him.

    Oh, and had it been BB it just would have just been another thing on the list of suspicious/cheating things he has done that he later says “wouldn’t help at all” but he does them anyway.

    DaBruinz…I am sure you are not partial at all to Boston Sports so I will take your word as gospel truth.


  20. I looked at that tweet Peter. What I believe is that Rex Ryan was clearly trying to interfere with the game. He should have been ejected.

  21. Joe, it’s not PI because 1) faceguarding is not illegal anymore. And 2) you said it yourself- the ball hit the defender in the back before any contact was made. Once the ball is touched, all bets are off.

  22. Thanks, Ben, for emphasizing that in officiating “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Gene Steretore’s “explanation” of the out of bounds play was sort of weird–and it had exactly the effect you described. I read it and thought “How can NFL refs be that unaware of the rules?”

    It’s bad enough to make a boo-boo. To try to justify it by mis-applying rules only makes a bad situation worse.

    I do wonder, though, if some of his (Steretore’s) double-speak in the interview was a matter of trying not to blame the guys in his crew publicly.

    The handling of the inadvertent whistle seemed to have the same kind of thinking behind it.

    When GS made the announcement of the play (with a “good” catch and 15-yd penalty), he had an odd expression on his face. I think he knew that his crew was bending the rules to try to make the outcome as “right” as possible. But again, it erodes confidence to think that out of 7 guys, not ONE knew where the ball actually was (in the air…) when the whistle blew.

    Thanks again for highlighting one of the important lessons from this game.

  23. Let’s get one thing correct. It’s not because the Pats are the defending champ. This has been going on with them for years. Goodell destroyed the spygate evidence as if he had something ro hide. The Pats have been blatantly cheating more than anyone else and continue to get away with it. Yes the officiating sucks Ben and I’m glad you’re admitting it. Also remember a couple years ago it was Steratore’s crew that blew it on the Eagles/Dallas on SNF by flagging Dallas for Delay of Game after a long pass in such short time and it didn’t dawn on a veteran ref like Gene that Dallas didn’t have enough time to set up the next play before going along with the flag without questioning it. The officiating this year is awful. Two big problems are as follows – Goodell is too close with the Pats and Blandino was not fired for being on a team bus – a BIG no-no!!! How can this type of behavior he allowed??? Because I’m wondering how fixed games are. I’ve always wondered why Tim Donaghy got off so easy as he easily could have brought down the world of sports given how guilty he was…….

  24. I forgot to say last night was another NE home game and the other team has problems with their headset?? Yes that’s been plaguing the Bills but every time I turn around its something with NE. Enough is enough of this. A team with that talent cheated their way to three rings.

  25. Thank god for this, the Steratore fan club can shut up for a week. Replay can be used for so much more….

  26. I just saw this on the site:

    It is a piece that speculates whether the HL may have been using a college (NCAA) rule/interpretation rather than the NFL standard.

    I am a football FAN (not a ref), but worked college and pro hockey (minor leagues, not NHL!) for some time. One the the constant things that bedeviled us was keeping rules straight between NCAA, ECHL, and NHL/AHL. When we would do major junior hockey that was another snake pit of nuances.

    Is this also a problem for football refs? If so, I think a lot of what went “wrong” on Monday comes down to this:

    1. You had an inadvertent whistle from a guy who had been injured and who was just getting his sea legs–but in a high-profile game mid-season and,
    2. You have a “young” (2 yr) HL, who is still mentally more in his college roots than the NFL.

    Does this make sense to any of the “real” football guys? Would love to hear your thoughts.

  27. MV- there are many rule differences at the various levels of football. as a high school official I can’t even begin to tell you how many situations there are to defuse simply because the coaches think the same thing they saw on TV on saturday or sunday should be applied friday night

  28. I’m sick of coaches bumping into officials and players and interfering with the game. New rule: a coach interferes with a play, it’s an automatic TD if the opposing team has the ball or it’s an automatic turnover if his team has it.

  29. This game is so hard to officiate and I can’t imagine trying to work a Pop Warner game after suffering the injuries Gary Arthur did in week one. Bottom line is GA is a pro and most of that crew is the best in the business.

  30. The Watkins going out of bounds situation has happened other times this year and the refs have been entirely consistent. I think it happened in the Pats-Steelers game, and the even the announcer knew that the clock kept running because the player took himself out of bounds without advancing the ball. This is entirely different than what you described above, a player “retreating”. Yes, players can retreat and lose forward progress in an attempt to elude defenders, and then advance the ball later. That, very clearly, is not what was happening here. The player was eluding contact and going backwards in the field of play entirely to get out of bounds. That is practically the very essence of “giving yourself up”. The refs haven applied that rule correctly and, moreover, consistently this year.

    As for Rex Ryan, I’m amazing he wasn’t ejected on the spot. He got on the apron of the field, got between the official and the action of a live play, and was yelling and pointing. Whether his intention was to address a player, or the official, is irrelevant. He interfered with a live play as a non-player. That should never happen, and a quick ejection seems like it should be practically automatic.

  31. I think someone should boycott these refs businesses maybe protest in front of there offices at their church even, non violent but very loud to show how much we respect their calls on the field. lost game on their call? they should be suspended for 5 years. to them its just a bad call as they are putting more money in their pocket for one game than most fans see in a years pay, to this fan it is not fun to watch games anymore when the refs decide who is going to win not the play of the teams

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