After each game, Blake Parnham breaks down the performance of the third team on the field: the men and women in stripes. In “Buffalo Bills Rulings Review”, Buffalo Fanatics‘ resident referee addresses the most consequential decisions from each Buffalo Bills game – whether they were right or wrong, no matter which team they benefitted. With reffing, sometimes the shorter the article, the better!
Author’s Note: This was the first time in my life that I’ve re-watched a loss. Do not recommend. Was not enjoyable.
After four consecutive wins, the Buffalo Bills fell to the Tennessee Titans 34-31 on Monday Night Football. As in any close game, the officials’ decisions were amplified. It was primetime, it was a three-point game, and there is a lot to discuss here.
Buffalo had eight accepted penalties against them, while Tennessee had seven. Though they had one more call against them, the Bills had 31 fewer penalty yards.
The Bills had three offensive penalties for 20 yards and two on defense for 20. Their sloppiest (and costliest) side of the ball was their special teams. Buffalo had three special teams penalties for 30 yards, and one of them nullified a 101 yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee had seven penalties for 91 yards: two on offense for 20, three on defense for 61, and two on special teams for 15. There were no offsetting fouls on Monday Night, but interestingly, there were a whopping seven penalties declined. This weird anomaly marks the highest number of declined penalties in any game so far in the 2021 season.
Clete Blakeman was the referee on Monday Night. He is one of the most respected officials in the NFL. His crew has been rewarded with a playoff game in each of the last four seasons, including last year’s NFC championship game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers. His crews have usually finished around a league average in terms of penalties-per-game. On Monday Night, there were a lot more flags than average.
Here are the five calls I’d like to talk about from week 6.
1: No call for Offensive Holding, Tennessee. Q1, 14:05.
It takes a lot of fortitude to call the same foul on the same team twice in quick succession. Like a basketball player picking up two charging fouls on two consecutive drives to the basket. Calling two of the same penalty occasionally makes a team feel like the stripes are out to get them. But sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed, particularly when the infraction is so glaringly obvious.
On the opening kickoff, a Tennessee blocker held a Buffalo gunner and was called for holding. Three snaps later, on 3rd and 11, Jerry Hughes took a wide angle to beat the blocking tight end, and then cut towards the pocket to try and sack quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Left tackle Taylor Lewan grabbed Hughes’ right shoulder and Tannehill stepped up to evade him. Tannehill ultimately made a nifty shovel pass that picked up just enough for the first down.
I’ve attached an image below. I’ll never know whether the holding call 55 seconds earlier may have impacted the officials’ decision to keep the flag in their pocket here. Perhaps, because it was so early in the game, the officials wanted to set the standard for offensive holding quite low, letting both teams know that it would take a lot of contact for them to throw a flag for that infraction in the future. If that was the case, it may have impacted the way they judged the Titans’ first offensive snap in the second quarter.
BONUS: Illegal Forward Pass, Tennessee. Q1, 3:08.
I’ll stop being a referee for a moment and return to being a Buffalo Bills fan. The fact that Mike Vrabel would even try this on a special teams play pissed me off. I really don’t like the Titans.
2: No call for Offensive Holding, Tennessee. Q2, 11:20.
Even more than the previous non-call for holding, this one really changed the complexion of the game. Every Bills fan will know which play I’m referring to before they even read it. For the first 19 minutes of the game, the Titans offense had no life. All of that changed when Derrick Henry took the first snap of this drive 76 yards to the endzone.
Henry is a freak athlete, and probably the best running back in the NFL. But was he aided by a missed holding call? I would argue that he was aided by multiple missed holding calls?
Wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine had a pretty firm grasp on Jordan Poyer’s shoulder pads and spun him around to prevent an attempted tackle. Further downfield, wide receiver A.J. Brown had both hands outside the numbers when he blocked Tre’Davious White. If you really hate yourself and wanted to relive this play, I’d recommend checking this Twitter thread from Bills QB Watch.
3: Illegal Hands to the Face, Buffalo. Q3: 10:49.
I’ve mainly included this one because I don’t ever remember seeing an illegal hands to the face penalty on a kicking team before. On the kickoff following Tyler Bass’s deep 52-yard field goal, tight end MyCole Pruitt blocked Jordan Poyer. Poyer had his right hand on Pruitt’s facemask and drove his head back. It is a standard illegal hands to the face penalty and the correct call. It was just really surprising to see on a kickoff.
4: Holding, Buffalo. Q4, 3:05.
Down by three points, the Buffalo Bills offense was getting the ball back with just over three minutes on the clock. I, like most Bills fans, had supreme confidence in Josh Allen to win the game. But what if he didn’t even need to touch the ball for the Bills to take the lead?
That’s what it looked like was about to happen when Isaiah McKenzie crossed the goal line on a 101-yard kickoff return. However, back at the Buffalo 28, Andre Smith was called for holding. Smith engaged with fullback Tory Carter, and when Carter tried to break away, Smith held onto his right arm.
For the Bills, the most unfortunate part of the penalty was that Smith didn’t need to hold. McKenzie may have scored anyway. And for Smith, it must have been very frustrating, and could impact how often he sees the field moving forward. It was his second special teams penalty in the game.
5: Spot of the ball. Q4, 00:38.
Down by three, it was 3rd and 6 from the Tennessee 8-yard line. Allen scrambled to his left and was tackled very close to the sticks. Initially, it looked like the officials ruled a first down and then altered their call to mark Allen short of the line to gain. If that’s what happened, it’s the correct result. Allen was short. The issue here is that the procedure was a little weird.
Allen was tackled in bounds, and the official correctly signaled that the clock should continue to run. Sean McDermott sprinted down the sideline to call his second timeout with 22 seconds to go. But somehow, during that time, it appeared that the officials changed the spot of the ball and ruled Allen short of first down yardage. McDermott said afterwards that he believed the final decision was made from the booth. In fact – while I am not a professional lip reader -in their postgame conversation, it looks like Clete Blakeman said the words “from above” when McDermott pressured him for an explanation.
The booth quickly overturning obvious mistakes is new in the 2021 season. Previously, it would have taken a lengthy booth review to change a call in this fashion. This so-called “sky judge” was put in place to speed the game up and lessen the amount of time-consuming reviews, but that does come with unintended consequences.
The impact of the “sky judge” changing this ruling is impossible to measure. If it were a traditional booth review, there would have been several minutes between 3rd and 4th down. If Daboll and Allen had more time, would they have come up with a different play call? Would McDermott have second-guessed himself and brought out Tyler Bass to tie the game? Ultimately, it didn’t happen that way. And no amount of time between snaps could have prevented Josh Allen’s left cleat from giving way, resulting in him slipping on fourth-and-one.
For the most part, Blakeman’s crew had a pretty solid game. But sometimes, all it takes are few misses to change the entire complexion of the night and leave a sour taste. A crew can call a near-perfect game, but if one or two mistakes are significant enough, they can and will impact the outcome. It was a disappointing result for Bills fans, but it is indeed a long season, even longer now than it ever was before.
Enjoy the bye week. I’ll enjoy my week away from here, and I’ll see you back on Halloween for more Buffalo Bills football. And if you’re looking for a costume, a striped shirt, black glasses and a walking stick is always a classic. Just don’t be too hard on us.