It was another strong performance from the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. The Bills hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in Western New York for the second straight year. Ironically, referee John Hussey got the assignment both times.
Hussey’s crew trends lower than most of the other crews in terms of penalties-per-game. Last year, for example, his crew called the second-fewest penalties per game with just over 10. For example, in last year’s Divisional Round game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs, they threw just four flags.
These trends continued on Sunday. There were only eleven total accepted penalties in the game. Of them, the Buffalo Bills committed five for 28 yards; three on offense for 16 and two on defense for 12. The Pittsburgh Steelers committed the other six fouls; four for 35 yards on offense and two for 19 yards on defense.
Due to this, and the fact that the game was essentially over by the middle of the second quarter, I’m shortening my article today. (That means less homework for you.) Instead of the normal five plays that I look at, we’re going to examine three. I just hope this means I don’t have to do seven after the Chiefs game.
Here are the three plays from Week 5:
1. Complete vs. Incomplete. Q1, 5:45.
This play was a 3rd and 8 from the Buffalo 11 yard line. The Bills were up 7-0 and the Steelers were looking to tie the game. Quarterback Kenny Pickett looked toward the right sideline and targeted wide receiver Diontae Johnson. Johnson appeared to make an incredible catch for a first down, and both the line judge and field judge signaled a completed catch.
Upon the first replay from the CBS broadcast, it became evident that Johnson did not get his second foot down in bounds. Then, without having to throw his red challenge flag, the decision was made for Sean McDermott when John Hussey announced that “after discussion on the field, it has been determined that it is an incomplete pass.”
This is interesting to me. It’s likely the sky judge in action. Since both officials initially incorrectly signaled a completed catch, then who was the “discussion” between? Almost certainly, the league buzzed down to Hussey and informed him that a clear and obvious error was made. As he should, he trusted the sky judge, and fixed the call.
The NFL has been using the sky judge to fix “clear and obvious” errors since last season (spot of the ball in the Bills-Titans game right before Josh Allen slipped). Though innocuous on Sunday, the implications of this are massive. On Sunday, it was just a routine complete/incomplete fix, but this allowed Sean McDermott to keep his challenge. If this was “clear and obvious” enough to fix without a challenge flag, will they handle all other complete/incomplete calls the same way? The sky judge can be a great tool for fixing bad mistakes, but it needs to be applied consistently and fairly across the league.
2. No call for Unnecessary Roughness. Q3, 1:19.
To put it in context: the score was 31-3. The Buffalo Bills were firmly in control. The game was over.
On this 2nd and 10, Kenny Pickett scrambled and looked like he would be close to picking up a first down. When he approached the sticks he started to slide, just as Damar Hamlin closed in on him. Hamlin lunged at Pickett just as the quarterback slid at the first down marker, and contacted him shoulder-to-shoulder but with considerable force. Afterwards, lineman James Daniels came into the scene and absolutely leveled Hamlin.
Keeping in mind that the score was 31-3, there probably should have been a flag on Hamlin on this play. The game was over, who cares if Hamlin picks up a foul there? In theory, all plays should be adjudicated independently of time and score. In practice, you’re darn right we keep that in the back of our minds while officiating. If throwing a flag on Hamlin on a 50-50 play is going to allow the rest of your game to go smoother, it’s probably a good idea to throw the flag and go with offsetting penalties against Hamlin and Daniels.
Hamlin and Pickett played at Pitt together. They know each other. There was almost certainly no intent on this play. Moreover, Pickett is known for the fake slide in the ACC Championship game last year. I’m certain the Bills coaching staff reminded their defense of this play, which may have further caused Hamlin to bring the quarterback down.
Now removing the theory, there were some practical elements that made this an important call. By not flagging Hamlin but correctly flagging Daniels, we go from a potential first down (they never said whether Pickett gained the first down or was just short) to a 3rd and long. On that play, the Steelers gained seven yards before committing a false start on their 4th down attempt. Now 4th and 13, Mike Tomlin elected to kick a field goal, which naturally was missed. A bad day got worse for the Steelers.
3. Disqualification, Buffalo. Q4, 1:07.
This was Pittsburgh’s last offensive snap of the game. Pickett scrambled to the right and threw off his back foot. Shaq Lawson dove at Pickett’s legs as he released the ball, and probably should have been flagged for roughing the passer. Going low on a quarterback like that is prohibited, and it seems like Hussey missed a foul there.
Pickett surely thought so. He was furious at Lawson for going low, particularly in a 38-3 game. This caused an altercation between the two teams. It’s really difficult to discern what happened because the angles in the video aren’t great, but AJ Epenesa was ejected.
What I think happened is that, in an attempt to break up the altercation, Hussey puts his hand on Epenesa to get him away from Steelers players. Because his back is to the referee, I think Epenesa thought that Hussey was a Steeler, and he thrust his elbow in that direction. His elbow contacted the referee, which is obviously grounds for disqualification, and there you go. I think it was a miscommunication as, even in the video, you can see Epenesa pleading his case to Hussey, and I really don’t expect him to be suspended.
Again, this is where context matters. Pickett felt like he was cannonfodder out there (and I can’t really disagree with him). If the previous play on Hamlin was called a foul in a 31-3 game, does Pickett get upset here? Perhaps there isn’t a scrum at all if that was dealt with. These are the theories and scenarios that good officials think about after our games. Good evaluators and good crewmates talk about these kinds of things, and it makes us all better officials for it.
There’s a saying that non-officials often use after a relatively straightforward game. They use it as a compliment but, ironically, it doesn’t usually come off as such: “Hey good job ref, that was a pretty easy game out there!”
Well, buddy, it was a pretty easy game because my crew made it so. Sure, the Steelers-Bills game was a blowout and there weren’t many controversial plays (evidenced by me dissecting only three plays) but Hussey and his crew did a fine job in dealing with what they absolutely had to, and letting the game go from there. I felt the same way after the Bills-Chiefs Divisional Round game, which was also officiated by Hussey. Both were fairly easy games because his crew did a really solid job.
Next week is probably the biggest game on the NFL schedule. Bills at Chiefs. I’d bet it’s the biggest non-playoff assignment for any officiating crew all season, and it’s been awarded to Brad Allen.
Allen has called two Buffalo Bills games over the past two years and, ironically, both were Wild Card games: Colts-Bills and Patriots-Bills. In those games, the Bills committed five penalties total. Look for the zebras to let them play in Kansas City and allow the premier players in the NFL to put on a show.
Featured Image: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette