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Buffalo Bills Rulings Review – Week 8

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After a heartbreaking loss at Tennessee, the Buffalo Bills had their bye week. Head Coach Sean McDermott is undefeated coming off the bye. And with the woeful Dolphins coming to Orchard Park, Bills fans expected a solid performance. The Bills defeated the Dolphins 26-11, but the game was a lot closer than the score suggests. Buffalo sputtered early and managed only three points in the first half. The game was still close late into the fourth quarter, which meant that many of the officials’ decisions held signifiant sway on the outcome.

Both the Bills and the Dolphins committed nine accepted penalties, for 80 and 58 yards respectively. Buffalo had five for 50 yards on offense, three for 25 yards on defense, and one 5-yard player-out-of-bounds penalty on special teams. Miami committed four offensive penalties for 25 yards, five defensive penalties for 33 yards, and did not have a special teams infraction. There were also three declined penalties.

Shawn Smith was the head official for Buffalo’s week 8 matchup. During the 2020 season, his crew called three Bills games, and all three were interestingly at home: the Jets, the Seahawks, and the Steelers. The Dolphins-Bills game marked the highest number of accepted penalties from each of the last two seasons for Smith. There were a lot of flags and several weird plays. Lots of ticks, and not many treats on Halloween.

Here are five important plays I’d like to talk about from the game:

1: Picked up flag. Q1, 4:49 and Illegal Hands to the Face, Buffalo. Q1, 1:49.

I’ve combined these two plays from the first quarter to highlight how inconsistent the crew was in handling illegal hands to the face. On the first play, the Bills had the ball. It was third down. Brian Daboll called a designed quarterback run, which was blown up in the backfield. An official threw a flag and color commentator James Lofton speculated that it may have been for an illegal hands to the face on Miami. After an unusually quick discussion, the officiating crew picked up the flag and it brought up 4th down. Unfortunately, because Sean McDermott sent out his kicker to attempt a 57-yard field goal, CBS didn’t show a replay. It’s therefore really difficult to tell what the flag was for, and whether it was the correct decision to pick it up.

Nevertheless, on Miami’s next possession, the referees did call an illegal hands to the face penalty. It was on Vernon Butler. What should have been a third down stop was converted into a Miami first down. After this play, there was a replay. It was an obvious foul.

It is never a good look when flags are picked up, as James Lofton pointed out after the no call at 4:49. It’s even worse when the foul happens later in the game, and the officials correctly enforce it. It’s even worse than that when the same foul happens even later, and the officials miss it. Stay tuned for #5.

2: No call for Offsides & Intentional Grounding, Buffalo. Q2, 00:53.

In a tie game and a 4th and 4 from Miami’s 44, McDermott left his offense on the field. It’s unclear whether they had a play called, or were simply trying to bait the defense into jumping offsides. When Mitch Morse saw linebacker Jaelan Phillips bite, he snapped the ball to Josh Allen, who pointed in Phillips’s direction. After that, the offensive line immediately fell apart and the play blew up. That was either because they weren’t expecting a play (because there wasn’t one planned), or they got dominated on that particular rep. I’m hoping for the former.

Allen was pressured so badly he had to throw it away, and was correctly called for intentional grounding. But because Phillips had jumped, the penalties would offset and the Bills would live to fight another play, right? Wrong. Defensive players are entitled to move before the snap, so long as they don’t enter the neutral zone. It’s tough to tell whether Phillips did, because there was no camera directly on the line of scrimmage for this play. However, the offset angle makes it look like Phillips was in the neutral zone. CBS rules analyst Gene Steretore thought so too.

The ball is about to be snapped, and Phillips (second from bottom) appears to be in the neutral zone.

Ultimately, even had the offsides foul been called, the intentional grounding is a bad penalty to take. If Allen thought there was a defensive penalty, he probably would have been best to take a sack. In that situation, the offsides would have resulted in a first down. Because he took a penalty himself, the two would have offset, and would have produced another fourth down. The Bills would have been right back to square one.

3: Muffed punt and touchback. Q3, 11:07.

This was a really weird play, and I would not have known then rule had the exact same thing not happened just the previous week during Sunday Night Football.

In that game, 49ers punt returner Brandon Aiyuk muffed the punt and actually kicked the ball into his own end zone, where he recovered the ball and was promptly tackled. The officials ruled a touchback, and former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira backed them up, explaining that because Aiyuk never actually possessed the ball, the play hadn’t yet changed from a punt to a 49ers possession. If the 49ers didn’t have possession of the ball, they couldn’t concede a safety.

The same thing happened to Isaiah McKenzie on Sunday. He muffed the ball, and it scooted into the endzone, where it was recovered by his teammate Jake Kumerow. Because the Bills never actually possessed the ball, they too could not concede a safety, and so a touchback was called. Now, had the ball been recovered by the Dolphins, it would have been a touchdown, as similar plays routinely are. The ruling does not absolve McKenzie of the muff, something that could have gone catastrophically bad for the Bills.

This was such a unique play, but football is weird, though. I’d never seen it before in my life and yet here it is, twice in two weeks.

4: Offsides, Buffalo. Q4, 12:22.

It looks like Hughes (bottom) is in the neutral zone before the snap.

If the officials chose to throw a flag for this offsides, then it’s hard to understand why they chose not to on the play near the end of the second quarter. Here, Jerry Hughes timed his jump nearly perfectly and pressured quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, leading to a sack. It looked like Hughes was just a half step too early, and was called for offsides. Calls like this are frustrating when they bring back big defensive plays, and even more difficult to stomach when a similar ruling went the other way in the first half, and hurt the Bills.

5: No call for Illegal Hands to the Face. Q4, 10:30.

This one is pretty egregious, and contributed to the Dolphins only touchdown in the game. The play was a 4th and 6 from the Buffalo 44. If the defense forced a turnover on downs, the game was probably over.

Greg Rousseau came off the left edge and was hit in the face by right tackle Jesse Davis. Davis hit Rousseau on the grill of his facemask, and it actually looks like he grasped it, and launched it upward. Rousseau’s helmet hit the turf, and Tagovailoa hit tight end Mike Gesicki for a 40-yard gain to keep the Dolphins hopes alive. A few plays later, they scored their only touchdown and cut the Bills lead to 6. The importance of this non-call cannot be overstated.

Here are a few photos of the play from Twitter. I’m just not sure how this wasn’t called a foul. This is another situation that is frustrating if it happens in a vacuum, but it didn’t. It happened in a game where the officials picked up a possible illegal hands to the face penalty on the Dolphins, and correctly called it on the Bills’s Vernon Butler. The crew were plainly looking for that foul. That’s what makes this even more difficult to understand.

Conclusion

I really like Shawn Smith as an official. He has good presence and normally calls a strong game. I thought the discussions amongst officials were quite quick, showing me that they were on the same page. That’s a really good quality in a crew, and shows that Smith is a good leader.

However, I thought they called a fairly inconsistent game. This game had two easy comparisons: offsides and illegal hands to the face. The rulings from the first half were inconsistent with the ones in the second half, and it’s particularly frustrating because both went against Buffalo. I do not think that Smith went out of his way to punish the Bills, nor do I think any crew does or will. But damn, it’s kind of been feeling that way over the past few weeks, hasn’t it?

See you all next week after the Jaguars game. Let’s hope there’s not much to talk about. 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.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Jon R

    November 4, 2021 at 12:37 pm

    Gene Steretore also explained that the neutral zone infraction, even if it had been called, was a “minor” (5-yard) penalty that would *not* offset the “major” (spot foul) penalty of intentional grounding. Once Allen got called for that, the no-call on the neutral zone infraction became moot.

    Also… I still don’t know how they missed a player’s helmet being pulled off, yet they called illegal hands to the face twice (IIRC) earlier in that same game.

    • Blake Parnham

      November 4, 2021 at 12:43 pm

      You’re right, I can’t believe I missed that. It speaks to just how dumb the grounding penalty was for Allen to take.
      And I also have no idea how they missed Rousseau’s helmet popping off. It did seem that they had made illegal hands a point of emphasis in that particular game, given they’d gotten it earlier. And naturally, the Dolphins had a massive gain on the play.

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