A Monday night officiating controversy in Seattle. Never heard that one before, right?
There was the Fail Mary between the Seahawks and Packers in 2012. Batgate between the Seahawks and Lions in 2015. Last night's debacle will be remembered for referee Walt Coleman screaming, “The half is not over!”
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How the crew led by Coleman, an official in the NFL since 1989, handled the final three seconds of the first half of Seahawks-Bills sparked outrage from pretty much everyone not living in the Seattle zip code. “Ridiculous,” Rex Ryan said at his news conference after Buffalo’s 31-25 loss. That was the subdued version of how he really felt. The reaction at league headquarters Monday night couldn’t have been much less intense. During a season plagued by ratings dips and prime-time duds, the NFL finally gets an excellent Monday Night Football matchup—and it’s marred by a totally avoidable officiating debacle?
Just before halftime, Buffalo kicker Dan Carpenter lined up for a 53-yard field goal, trying to pull his team within one score. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, lined up on the left side of the defensive formation, jumped offside. Sherman told ESPN after the game that he didn’t want the Bills to get a free kick, so with a clear path to the kicker, he tried the block the ball. Was he targeting the ball, or Carpenter’s knee? Sherman put his left hand out toward the ball, but at the same time he was diving toward Carpenter’s left knee, leading with his shoulder and cutting the kicker to the ground. The whistle did not blow until after the collision.
Coleman, who had a clear view of this sequence of events, called only the five-yard offside penalty—missing the personal foul for unnecessary roughness. Regardless of intent, the hit's severity and potential for injury were enough for the roughness foul. Mistake No. 1.
Because the personal foul had not been called, and medical personnel ran onto the field as Carpenter grabbed his knee, the kicker was required to come out of the game for one play. Had the foul been called, he would have been allowed to stay in. The Bills spiked the ball quickly to stop the clock with Carpenter off the field, then brought him back on for the re-kick. Carpenter made the 49-yarder. Half over.
But wait! The Bills were called for a delay of game.
For the second time in minutes, viewers across America were staring at their TVs asking, How did this happen? Replays show an official still standing over the ball as the final seconds of the play clock expired. Per the rulebook, after a delay for a penalty enforcement, the play clock should be reset to 25 seconds when the referee blows his whistle after the ball is set. In this case, the play clock was never reset. Mistake No. 2. The erroneous five-yard delay of game penalty pushed the Bills' field goal try back to 54 yards, and Carpenter missed.
Both mistakes were confirmed by Dean Blandino, NFL vice president of officiating. He tweeted during the game, correcting the missed unnecessary roughness call almost immediately. Later he discussed both errors on NFL Network. “We’re going to address the situation with our crew,” he said after the game finished.
The problem, of course, is that the botched calls had the potential to affect the outcome of the game, albeit not as directly as the the Fail Mary or Batgate. But if Carpenter’s 49-yard field goal hadn’t been taken away on the erroneous delay of game penalty, the Bills would have had three more points, in a game decided by just six. Perhaps then, when they were driving deep into Seattle territory in the final minute of the game, they would have needed just a field goal to tie it up and send it into overtime. Instead, they needed a touchdown and were handed the loss when Tyrod Taylor’s fourth-and-goal pass to Robert Woods in the end zone fell incomplete.
Officiating crews are graded every week, and those grades affect postseason assignments. In rare cases, officials can be disciplined. Last year, side judge Rob Vernatchi was suspended one week after an accidental clock runoff between San Diego and Pittsburgh, and back judge Greg Wilson was reassigned from a prime-time game after missing the Seahawks' illegal bat penalty against the Lions. (The Fail Mary was under the watch of the replacement refs.) No one on Pete Morelli's crew, though, was disciplined for missing a false start penalty on the Jaguars' game-winning field goal against the Ravens last season. Looking at the bigger picture, calls for the NFL to move to full-time officials, rather than part-time hires who work day jobs during the week, have been growing louder over the past few years. Consider this another brick in the wall.
Sherman, somewhat ironically, had just this week suggested that officials are making calls against the Seahawks to keep things close. This week, though, it’s the Bills who will be getting an apology. No one—not winners, not losers and not spectators—likes to see an outcome of a game potentially affected in a major way by an officiating mistake. Let alone two mistakes. Let alone two mistakes that are obvious.
A Monday Night thriller, for all the wrong reasons.
9. Pittsburgh (4-4). LW: 6. The Steelers’ struggles over the last month have turned the AFC North race from having a clear favorite to one that’s very muddled.
10. Detroit (5-4). LW: 16. Matthew Stafford thrives in those late-game pressure cookers. He’s making the NFC North race interesting this season.
11. Green Bay (4-4). LW: 10. We’ve seen a lot of frustrated Aaron Rodgers this season. On Sunday, his message was clear: He’s tired of doing it by himself.
12. San Diego (4-5). LW: 18. San Diegans will vote today on a ballot measure that could help determine the team’s future in the city. Even if it doesn’t get the required two-thirds of votes to pass, there’s still a path for the city to keep its team.
13. New York Giants (5-3). LW: 17. The Cowboys have the clear advantage in the division, but keep in mind that the Giants have the only win against Dallas this season.
14. Washington (4-3-1). LW: 12. Coming out of the bye, Washington gets either a reeling Vikings team or a very ticked-off Vikings team. Bet on the latter.
15. Buffalo (4-5). LW: 15. The Bills dropped a heartbreaker, but the biggest loss Monday night was center Eric Wood suffering a season-ending broken leg.