After a dominant performance in Los Angeles against the Rams, the Buffalo Bills were fortunate to have eleven days of rest before their home opener. The Tennessee Titans came to Western New York for Monday Night Football, and Shawn Smith’s officiating crew was assigned to the game.
In contrast to the opening game against the Rams, the officials had their work cut out for them in Week 2, especially at the line of scrimmage. In the Bills’ opening game, there were nine total accepted penalties. On Monday night, there were 17.
The Buffalo Bills committed eight of the 17 fouls. Three came on offense, setting the Bills back 15 yards. Four were defensive infractions, totaling 30 yards. Buffalo also had its first special teams penalty of the year, costing them four yards (half the distance to the goal line).
Tennessee committed the other nine penalties. On offense, they had two fouls for 25 yards and on defense, five penalties for 42. Tennessee also had two special teams penalties that totaled 20 yards.
Following their Week 1 assignment between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders, Shawn Smith and his crew were given the early Monday Night assignment. In Los Angeles, their crew only called eight penalties for 32 yards and had a smooth game. In Buffalo, they had nine additional accepted flags and a further 104 yards of penalty yardage.
While watching on Monday night, I thought Smith’s crew had a very poor game. There were a few questionable rulings, many of which I will speak to below. But upon a second viewing – rulings aside – what stood out to me was the apparent lack of preparation from the crew. Too many times they had long delays between the play and the penalty announcement. Once, they even moved the chains for a first down before having to bring them back.
Calls will be missed. It happens, even in professional sports. What can’t happen is the level of disorganization and perceived confusion from a crew. Looking confused out there will erode the trust that the players and coaches have in you, far, far quicker than the occasional blown call.
Though not all of the following plays were blown calls, why not start with one? These are the five rulings I’d like to discuss from the Titans game:
1. No call for False Start. Q1, 5:27.
The Buffalo Bills had already gone down the field and scored a touchdown on their opening drive. The Tennessee Titans needed an answer, and so, with a 4th and 1 from the Buffalo 2-yard line, Titans coach Mike Vrabel left his offense on the field.
I thought it was strange that they lined up in the shotgun. Surely, with Derrick Henry at running back, they’d hand it off. Despite the formation, they did exactly that, and Henry plunged over the left guard into the endzone.
The missed false start was obvious, even live. Offensive lineman Nicholas Petit-Frere jumped ahead of the snap.
I’ve definitely seen linemen flagged for less. This should have been a five-yard penalty. Who knows whether Vrabel would have kept his offense on the field on a 4th and 6. You’d think he would have taken the three points.
2. Spot of the ball. Q1, 2:30
This was a pretty poor mishap. On a 2nd and 10, Josh Allen noticed that Stefon Diggs had very soft coverage. Diggs ran a five-yard out pattern on the right side of the field, caught the ball, turned upfield, and was pushed out of bounds by cornerback Tre Avery. Live, it was fairly apparent that Diggs gained nine yards and was one yard short of the line to gain.
However, Down Judge Mark Hittner placed the ball right at the first down marker. It’s unclear from video whether Hittner motioned for a new set of downs and for a chain reset. Nevertheless, the chain gang moved forward and tried to set up their new position before Hittner and Side Judge Clay Reynard quickly told them to go back.
Unfortunately, the delay stopped Buffalo’s momentum. The officials were forced to blow the play dead and reset the game clock. This prevented Buffalo from continuing their no-huddle offense. Referee Shawn Smith correctly announced that they had reset the chains because Diggs was short of the line to gain, but he mistakenly announced that it was a 2nd and 1. In fact, it was a 3rd and 1.
On 3rd and 1, the Bills plunged Zach Moss into the line for no gain. On 4th and 1, McDermott kept the offense on the field and the Bills called a screen pass that fell incomplete. Obviously we’ll never know if the drive would have continued had the officials and the chain gang correctly spotted a 3rd and 1 originally, but these types of unnecessary delays hurt momentum and can derail things quickly. It was not a missed call — in fact, the spot was correct. But the delay was egregious and never should have happened.
3. Illegal Contact, Tennessee. Q2, 8:41.
I didn’t like this call against the Titans, and I really don’t like what it indicates for the game moving forward. This year’s Point of Emphasis, put out by the Officiating Department, is to call more illegal contact fouls. The logic is to promote passing. The NFL does not want receivers knocked off their routes; they want a free and easy passing game to please their viewers.
That being said, this play — by definition — was illegal contact. Isaiah McKenzie ran a deep crossing pattern and, as he made his break, was bumped by Titans Linebacker David Long Jr. As a result, McKenzie had to take an extra step in making his break, which could have thrown off the timing with Allen, had he been looking for McKenzie.
Announcer Dan Orlovsky even commented that “[Long Jr.] barely touches him eight yards down the field,” which is a pretty solid analysis of the play. Even as a former quarterback, Orlovsky didn’t like the call, but he and his announcing crew begrudgingly accepted it as correct “by the letter of the law.”
I think we’re going to see a lot of these this season. It will be frustrating when it goes against us, and we’ll sigh and go “I’ll take it” when it benefits us. This is what the NFL wants, even if, as it seems, many of their fans do not.
4. False Start, Buffalo. Q2, 7:15.
After the Illegal Contact penalty, the Buffalo Bills faced a familiar situation. It was another 4th and 1, and Sean McDermott again kept his offense on the field. As the play clock wound down, Titans Defensive Tackle Naquan Jones jumped forward. Bills Center Greg Van Roten, sensing Jones entering the neutral zone, slapped him on the helmet. The play was blown dead.
The officiating crew got together immediately. After a few seconds, Shawn Smith pushed away nearby players and the crew huddled on an open patch of turf. This indicated to me immediately that the Down Judge and Line Judge had different rulings.
Ultimately, the crew called a false start and the crowd, predictably, lost their minds. Watching the replay, however, Jones never entered the neutral zone. Defensive players can move as much as they want before the snap, provided they stay on their side of the line of scrimmage. Though a slight lunge by a defensive lineman usually indicates that he crossed the line, on this play he didn’t. His actions were legal. Van Roten, in touching Jones’s helmet, forced the officials to blow the play dead, and they correctly ruled a false start.
It was a little difficult to handle at the time, as the upcoming 4th and 6 made McDermott bring out Tyler Bass and take a 10-7 lead. Had the officials not missed the false start on the Henry touchdown, this ruling would have been much easier to swallow.
5. No call for Unnecessary Roughness. Q3, 12:59
On their opening drive of the second half, the Titans had a 3rd and 7 from their own 45. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill attempted to hit Wide Receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine down the right sideline but overthrew him. Despite this, Micah Hyde didn’t let up in his pursuit of the ball and of Westbrook-Ikhine and hit him hard long after the ball had landed.
It would not have surprised me at all if Hyde were flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play. The hit was shoulder-to-shoulder, but it was significantly after the ball had landed. The play wasn’t violent, but it was rough and decidedly unnecessary. Had it been flagged, the Titans drive would have continued and, in a 17-7 football game, it may have gotten close.
Overall, I thought Shawn Smith and his crew had a fairly weak game. On my second viewing of the game, I thought their call selection was better but their game awareness was worse. It is early in the season and crews, like teams, are sometimes slow in getting into regular season form. Nevertheless, Smith is a solid official who has worked the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. However, I expected a better game.
Next week, the Buffalo Bills will travel to Miami to play the Dolphins. Alex Kemp will be the referee. The last time Kemp’s crew called a Bills game was in Week 12 of 2020, when the Bills beat the Chargers in Buffalo. I wish him, and the Bills, a strong game.
Featured Image: Larry Brown Sports