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Timing error on Broncos FG prevents a kickoff to the Bills with seconds to go

There should have been 2 seconds on the clock, but an administrative error prevented it

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When a team is in field goal range for a game winner after six missed or botched kicks, things are definitely about to become interesting.

Trailing by one — take your pick as to the cause — the Broncos brought their kicking team out with the clock running at the end of the game. With 7 seconds on the clock, Will Lutz kicked the ball wide right, but a second chance was awarded due to the Bills having 12 players on defense. On the follow-up snap, Lutz was able to connect on the field goal as time expired.

However, there should have been at least 2 seconds remaining on the clock, and the Bills should have been able to get the ball back. But an administrative error by the officiating crew prevented it.

UPDATE 11/15. The NFL officiating department, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

The issue was caused by the type of foul the Bills committed and how it is applied. The “defensive too many men,” or DTM in officiating shorthand, can be for a 12th player who doesn’t exit the field in time or for 12 players in formation. In the former situation, it is a live-ball foul, however, because 12 in formation has an imbalance that materially would affect the play, it is a snap-killing foul. Officials will blow their whistles any time the defense has a formation of 12 and the snap is imminent. In this case, the Broncos and Bills get set, and field judge Joe Blubaugh and back judge Jimmy Russell threw their flags for DTM, but the kick is allowed and takes 3 seconds off the clock.

UPDATE 11/15. An officiating source told Football Zebras the crew wrote this up on their game report, in the source’s words, that “the snap was not imminent until it actually occurred” and justifying a live-ball DTM. While the source wasn’t in a position to elaborate, the Broncos were essentially in position with 12 seconds on the game clock, with Lutz still stepping back to his spot. At this point, a snap can come one second after Lutz stops, which really leans toward the snap being imminent. Additionally, Blubaugh (under the right upright) had his flag in the air before the snap occurs and Russell’s was out before the snap reached the holder.

The huge problem in all this is Blubaugh and Russell were signaling the clock to stop, and even though the snap occurs, their ruling supersedes it, even if the whistles weren’t heard. And any time an official blows the play dead, it is absolute, save for one unrelated replay situation. This means that an official must communicate this fact clearly to the referee and ensure that the timing of the dead ball is adhered to.

Because there is no snap the game clock needs to be reset to 7 seconds when the flag for the snap-killing DTM comes out. This is reviewable and a miss by the replay booth: veteran replay official Mark Butterworth and first-year replay assistant Julie Johnson. Referee Bill Vinovich, in his classic mode of indefatigable efficiency, announced the penalty as a live-ball DTM and got the ball ready for another field goal attempt but made the administrative error of not resetting the clock in his expedience. While a routine penalty, rushing through the routine can lead to missing the obvious, in this case enforcing a live-ball DTM over the one that shuts down the snap.

Back to the second kick — and if there are 7 seconds on the clock as there should be — the rules state the clock stops once the ball contacts an object after a successful field goal but a maximum of 5 seconds to elapse. This means that the Bills are entitled to receive a kickoff with 2 or 3 seconds on the clock. If the kickoff was a squib kick and downed in the field of play, the downing is a 1-second play, and obviously a conventional touchback or fair catch does not consume any time. This means the Bills would also get one offensive play unless the kickoff is returned.

The officiating matter aside, because it is a serious administrative issue, we must also recognize that there is a twist of logic to wish a penalty was better timed in order to make up for the field goal that the same penalty lead to.

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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