I have been mentally preparing for this article for weeks.
When I started writing these recaps back in week four, I knew that sooner or later there’d be a disaster on the field. I was just hopeful that all the terrible calls would benefit the Bills.
After a frustrating loss to New England on Monday Night Football, the Bills flew to Tampa to play the Buccaneers. The Bills came out flat on a short week, being outscored 24-3 in the first half. In the second half, they flipped the script, outscoring the Bucs by the very same score and forcing overtime. Unfortunately, quarterback Tom Brady threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to win the game and send the Bills home with their second consecutive loss.
The game recap doesn’t sound so bad when it’s put that way, but that version doesn’t tell the whole story. Not for the first time this season, the officiating crew played a role in a close loss. This one more than any of the others.
Buffalo had seven penalties for 65 yards on Sunday. Two were on offense for 10 yards, and five were on defense for 55. Tampa Bay had only four penalties, tallying 24 yards. Three were on defense for 14, and one was a hold on a kick return for 10. They did not commit a penalty on offense.
Scott Novak led the officiating crew. Recently, he and his crew refereed the Bills – Jets game in New Jersey, and I thought they did a great job. On Sunday, it was a different game. Novak and his crew were wholly inconsistent on identifying penalties in the secondary, which is surprising. Buffalo has committed the most defensive holding penalties in the league, and Tampa Bay has committed the most defensive pass interference penalties. Novak knew that there would be infractions in the secondary. It should have been a point of emphasis for his crew when they were assigned this game. Instead, they have been rightly criticized by various sources since the game concluded.
While there are more than five plays that I’d like to talk about from week 14, for the sake of space and consistency, I’ll use the same format as each week. Here are the five plays:
1: Illegal Shift, Buffalo. Q2, 12:55.
This horrible ruling was lost in the discussion about holding and pass interference issues. It was the game’s second penalty, occurring on a 1st and ten from the 50-yard line. Gabriel Davis caught a five-yard pass, but it was brought back on an illegal shift, called jointly on Stefon Diggs and Spencer Brown.
Referee Scott Novak announced that Diggs and Brown were moving simultaneously and did not reset before the snap. If this happened, it would have been a penalty, but not an illegal shift. If Spencer Brown was moving before the snap, it would have been an obvious false start on our right tackle.
Commentator Tony Romo let his thoughts out immediately after the foul was announced. “Well,” he said. “This is a terrible call.”
What gets me is at no point during the discussion did any of the officials question themselves or each other. When the calling official relayed the penalty for Novak to announce, the referee didn’t second guess his crewmate. No one thought to themselves, “wait, we can’t have an illegal shift on two players moving before the snap if one of those players is the right tackle.” No one thought to pick it up.
This call was overlooked because of a variety of reasons. It was early in the game. It only took away a short gain, the very next play was a 24-yard pass, and there were much worse later in the game. Nevertheless, it’s probably the worst illegal shift I’ve ever seen.
2: No call for Holding. Q2, 00:34.
This is another egregious miss by the crew. Josh Allen had Stefon Diggs on a deep route at the end of the half. The ball may have been a little underthrown, as Allen had to throw off his back foot, but we will never know how accurate the pass was because Diggs had his jersey held by cornerback Carlton Davis III. It wasn’t just a light tug of the jersey either; Davis almost ripped the shirt clean off the wide receiver.
Davis was beat on the play. He knew it, and both Allen and Diggs knew it. Davis grabbed Diggs to prevent a touchdown. By the officials missing the obvious hold, Davis gave up neither the touchdown nor the penalty.
3: Unnecessary Roughness, Buffalo. Q3, 11:15.
There’s no debate that the officials called the correct penalty here; it’s whether or not they got the enforcement right.
Already up 24-3, this was a 4th and two that the Buccaneers decided to go for. In stark comparison to Sean McDermott’s conservative approach, Bucs coach Bruce Arians wanted to win the game here. The interior defensive line, combined with a blitzing Tremaine Edmunds, generated good pressure up the middle on a quick pass play. Edmunds batted the ball straight into the air, just as Oliver was blocked to the ground by center Ryan Jensen.
While on the ground, Oliver got on top of Jensen and bodyslammed him into the turf. This is unnecessary roughness every single time, and most of the time, it would occur after the play was over. Since this was a 4th down play and the Buccaneers failed to convert, it would become Buffalo’s ball, and the penalty would be enforced between downs, moving the ball 15 yards further back.
But this play was weird. Not only was the ball deflected upwards by Edmunds, but it was also then tipped by A.J. Epenesa and Tom Brady. Then it was deflected sky high by Micah Hyde. Then it hit the ground.
Because of how long it took the ball to land, and therefore, the play took to end, it could very well be argued that Ed Oliver started committing his penalty before the play was over. If that had been the ruling, the Buccaneers would have kept the ball with a 1st and 10. Enforcement either during the play or after the play is a massive call here. It was quite close, but I do think the officials got it right. But Oliver was very, very close to giving the Bucs an undeserved first down and essentially ending the game.
4: No call for Pass Interference. Q4, 00:28.
This is an inexcusable miss from the officials. It’s one of the most significant rulings in any game all season, and it’s flat-out wrong. I don’t have it for you if you are looking for cutting-edge analysis from me. Here are two different angles of Diggs being hauled down by Carlton Davis, the same defensive back that held him earlier.
A penalty here would have given the Bills the ball at the 1-yard line with a little more than 20 seconds left. While they had no timeouts left, which would have limited their ability to run the ball, you’d have to think they punch it in for a touchdown. What could have been one of the greatest victories in a generation was snuffed out by a horrendous miss from Scott Novak’s crew.
5: Pass Interference, Buffalo. OT, 7:06.
First, can we talk about our punter hitting an absolute missile when it mattered most? The Bills punting has been inconsistent all season. In the only overtime of the year, Matt Haack blasted a 63-yarder that was downed at the 6. Amazing.
A few plays later, the Buccaneers were on their own 16. Tom Brady threw a deep pass to wide receiver Mike Eans, who Levi Wallace covered. The ball was underthrown, and Evans knew it, so he reached around Wallace and pulled him closer, almost like a mid-air hug. Wallace fell on top of Evans, and the officials somehow called him for the penalty. The ball was placed at the spot of the infraction, 19 yards downfield. Three plays later, the Bucs won the game.
Novak’s crew was remarkably inconsistent on Sunday. The Bills were flagged for defensive holding three times and defensive pass interference twice. The Buccaneers were flagged for neither. Moreover, the Bills have been the beneficiaries of defensive holding penalties only twice this season, and incidentally, both were called on Dolphins all-pro cornerback Xavien Howard.
Bills fans know that the referees have been inconsistent; any regular reader of these pieces knows that there have been some horrible calls in Bills games this year, both going against and benefitting the team. Fortunately, in a way, Sunday afternoon brought this attention to a wider audience. The Bills game was the CBS national broadcast, and it was a terrific game. People watched. And even neutral observers were pissed.
The NFL has an officiating problem, and I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know that it will get worse. Abuse, poor pay, and long travel distances are driving new amateur sports officials to quit the game early in their careers. The men and women who might one day become professional sports officials are leaving before they could ever get that far. The talent pool that the NFL has to choose from is slowly shrinking. In short: this problem will get worse.
I don’t know what the solution is for the NFL; I don’t referee professionally. But I do referee. If you’re watching your son or daughter play a sport, be nice. The person in stripes might one day grow up to be better than the ones we saw on Sunday – and is that truly even a high bar? Don’t drive them away.
Next week, the Panthers will take on the Bills in Orchard Park. In eleven years, I will be there with them for the first time. Not sure if security will confiscate my little notepad. See you all next week, Go Bills.