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Buffalo Bills Rulings Review – Week 18.

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In Week 18, the Buffalo Bills hosted the New York Jets with a division title on the line. The New England Patriots, playing in Miami, needed to win and rely on New York to beat Buffalo in order to retake the AFC East. Neither happened. The Patriots lost, and the Bills defeated the Jets 27-10.

The Buffalo Bills won their second consecutive division crown on Sunday. Though there were some stumbles, when the team was sharp, it was really, really strong. The same could be said of the officials. They nailed a couple of difficult rulings, but had a few missteps of their own.

As for the teams, it was a rather clean game, with only eight total penalties for 67 yards. Buffalo had four fouls for 40 yards; two on offense for 25 and two on special teams for 15. The Jets also had four accepted penalties go against them, but for only 27 yards. One came on offense for 5 yards and three were on defense for 22. There were also offsetting personal fouls on a punt in the second quarter, a play that I will address later.

The referee of the regular season finale was John Hussey. Ironically, Hussey also officiated Buffalo’s season opener against Pittsburgh. He is a solid seventh-year official and should find himself with a playoff game this postseson.

On Sunday afternoon, I thought his crew did a fine job. They got a couple of really challenging rulings correct, and took their time to discuss other tough ones, such as the Diggs touchdown on the opening drive. But also, I thought they missed a few consequential calls that just can’t happen in the playoffs. This was actually a really fun game to break down.

Here are Week 18’s plays:

1: No call for Defensive Holding. Q2, 13:30.

The first play here was probably the biggest mistake from the crew. Already up 10-0, the Buffalo Bills had a 4th and 5 from the New York 29. Sean McDermott chose to leave his offense on the field, and Gabriel Davis had single coverage. Josh Allen targeted him on a short hitch route on the right side.

Davis had outslide leverage on cornerback Bryce Hall, and Allen threw the ball to the boundary where only his man could be. Hall’s only play to prevent a completion was to grab Davis and pull him back towards the middle of the field. That’s exactly what he did, and when Davis felt the contact, he thrust an arm into Hall’s chest to try and regain leverage. Hall fell backward with his arms in the air, but by this time the ball had passed them both by, and innocently fallen incomplete.

Other than the subjectivity surrounding the new taunting rules, I think defensive holding has been the most inconsistently officiated foul all season. Specifically, in Bills games, Buffalo has been flagged 17 times for defensive holding. They have accepted exactly one defensive holding foul against their opponent this season. Sure, the Buffalo Bills play very physical in the secondary, but that gap is really alarming.

2: Offsetting Personal Fouls. Q2, 5:40.

I haven’t seen a coach this angry in Orchard Park since… well a few weeks ago, when Matt Rhule lost his mind.

On this play (and on others), Matt Haack shanked a punt and, as the ball was rolling on the turf, Reid Ferguson and fullback Nick Bawden started going at it. Bawden pushed Ferguson to the turf, Ferguson got up and pushed Bawden, and then tackled him to the ground. A melee ensued, and the officials converged. Offsetting fouls were called and, frankly, I’m surprised neither player was ejected. Both probably should have been. You can definitely make an argument that both players threw punches, which is a disqualifying offense.

I don’t think the possible disqualification of Buffalo’s long snapper upset Jets coach Robert Saleh. I think what frustrated him was the enforcement of the penalties. On plays where a change of possession happens (turnovers, kickoffs, punts), the timing of the possession change is important when enforcing the infraction. If the offsetting fouls occur after the change of possession. The down will count, the fouls will offset, and the new team will take the ball. If the penalties occur before the possession change, the teams will replay the down.

Most times, on punting plays, an offsetting situation like this would have occurred after the punt returner caught the ball, which is after the possession change. But because the punt was so bad, the ball was rolling around on the turf. The Jets had not secured possession, and the altercation therefore happened before.

Even though the officials enforced this correctly, offsetting the fouls and replaying the down, this naturally pissed off Robert Saleh. Instead of a 28-yard punt, Matt Haack would get a second attempt. Ironically, his second punt was even worse, only traveling 21 yards. The offsetting ruling actually benefitted the Jets.

3: No call for Illegal Touching. Q2, 00:17.

This was a really weird play and a tough one to get correct in real time. In a 10-7 game with a 1st and 10 from the New York 18, Josh Allen thought he’d found Gabriel Davis in the back of the endzone. But, in running his route, Davis had stepped out the back of the end zone. When the ball arrived, he was on his way back onto the field, but had not yet re-established with both feet. Davis caught the ball when his first foot came down in bounds. Then, he tapped his second foot before going out of bounds for a second time.

Back Judge Brad Freeman officiated the play perfectly. When Davis ran out of the end zone during his route, Freeman threw his hat on the turf, the universal signal for a player voluntarily running out of bounds. Because Davis had not successfully re-established in bounds, he was technically still out-of-bounds when the ball hit his hands. This is a dead ball immediately. It doesn’t matter what happens afterwards, the play is over.

More importantly, because Davis hadn’t re-established on the field, there was no foul for illegally touching the ball. Had he re-established, there would have been a 5-yard penalty, and the down would’ve counted. This would have been a worse outcome for the Buffalo Bills than a simple incomplete pass. Instead of 2nd and 10, it would’ve been 2nd and 15.

You’d like to see a little more awareness from Davis as he’s running his routes, but this hasn’t been a problem before. Gabriel Davis is one of the premier boundary wide receivers in the game. But what you like to see is some very good officiating from Brad Freeman. He got it right on the field, right away. When crew chief John Hussey noticed Freeman without his hat, he ran up to his back judge and confirmed the ruling. It was quality officiating that normally goes unnoticed.

4: No call for Tripping. Q3, 1:30.

I missed this live and, apparently, so did the crew. On a 2nd and 15, the Bills called a draw play to Zach Moss. Moss looked to have a lane up the middle, but defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd stuck his left leg out and tripped Moss close to the line of scrimmage.

Admittedly, Shepherd was being blocked by Ryan Bates when the contact occurred, but his left leg was far outside of his normal body position. Perhaps the officials thought that Bates had blocked him into that position. Perhaps they didn’t see it at all. But this was a very important ruling. In a 13-10 game, the Buffalo Bills could’ve had an automatic first down instead of a 3rd and 13. After this no call, Josh Allen threw an incomplete pass and the Bills were forced to punt. In a game against a stronger opponent, this ruling could have had massive implications.

5: Unnecessary Roughness, New York. Q4, 5:51.

This play had the possibility to end in a brawl. On a 3rd and goal from the 9, Josh Allen scrambled to his right. As he approached the goal line, he was pursued by two Jets defenders, defensive lineman Kyle Phillips and linebacker Hamsah Nasirildeen. As Allen ran toward the sideline, Phillips let up and put very minimal contact on the quarterback. Nasirildeen did not. He leveled Allen when he was already out of bounds.

Allen is very clearly on the sideline when hard contact is made

What happened afterwards is what made the play really strange. Not only did Nasirildeen contact Allen, most of his force went into his teammate, Kyle Phillips. Phillips was injured on the play, and lay on the turf long afterwards. Moreover, as Allen was bumped, he flattened Field Judge Allen Baynes, who hit the back of his head on the padded wall in front of the first row.

Allen was justifiably angry and as he approached Nasirildeen, he had to be held back by Mitch Morse. Sean McDermott even sprinted down the sideline to lobby for his quarterback. This is precisely the type of play that you don’t want to see in garbage time – and exactly the type of play you have to expect if you’re the officiating crew. The Bills were up by 10 late in the game. The Jets had less than six minutes left in their season. The teams are division rivals. Prepare for dirty stuff.

Ultimately, once Baynes righted himself and the crew got together, they assessed a personal foul on Nasirldeen. If you look at the photo above, Down Judge Sarah Thomas had the best look at the play. You’d like to see her throw her flag immediately, possibly preventing the ensuing scuffle. I frankly have no idea why she didn’t.

Either way, even if it looked ugly, the crew got it right. But even on correct rulings, sometimes the difference between the officials looking sloppy or getting it right immediately can be the difference between advancing in the playoffs or not. Which brings me to…

Conclusion

John Hussey and his crew did a fine job on Sunday. It’s great to see a string of solid officiating to close out the season, particularly as the league restarts its practice of “all-star crews.”

Over the course of the season, officials are graded both individually and as part of their crew. For an official to earn him or herself a postseason assignment, they need to be graded on both accounts. It’s a competition. Sometimes, even if an official gets a call right, that’s not good enough. Accuracy, game management, presentation – there’s many things to be considered.

It is, therefore, difficult to predict how crews will call games moving forward. On Saturday, the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots will have Brad Allen as their referee. Allen’s regular season crew recently called Buffalo’s game against New Orleans. On Thanksgiving night, the Bills had four penalties for 35 yards. Last year, he headed an “all-star crew” that called Buffalo’s Wild Card game against Indianapolis. In that game, Buffalo only had two penalties for 7 yards.

Are either of those games by Brad Allen useful in predicting how Saturday’s game may be called? Maybe. It’s hard to tell without knowing what officiating philosophies and tendencies will be in the locker room when they pregame the matchup.

Either way, it should be a fun and frigid game. Bundle up – I have six layers packed – because it might be chilly. Go Bills.

Blake Parnham is a sports official and a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan. Blake is an advocate for reducing the abuse directed at officials in amateur sport. On gameday, you can find him in his backyard at the Bills Helmet Bar, in Keswick, Ontario.

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