Thanks to last night’s inadvertent whistle at Gillette Stadium, another potentially significant officiating gaffe has received far less attention.
It came on what turned out to be the last play of regulation, with the Bills down by seven and trying to get in position for a last-ditch, Hail Mary heave to the end zone. It appeared they’d get it, with quarterback Tyrod Taylor completing a 16-yard pass to receiver Sammy Watkins, who hit the deck and rolled out of bounds at the Buffalo 48, apparently with two seconds on the clock.
But then an official did the arm-crank thing, keeping the clock running and ending the game.
It was, from ESPN’s perspective, another poorly-discussed, late-game snafu, with Mike Tirico pointing out the curiosity before the broadcast ended, but with no explanation from Gerry Austin or anyone else regarding why it was or wasn’t the appropriate decision to end the game.
Afterward, referee Gene Steratore addressed the decision to keep the clock running through the rarely-seen creature known as a “pool report.”
“What we had as far as the last play with Buffalo’s reception was that the receiver gave himself up voluntarily in the field of play,” Steratore said. “When that occurs and we deem that the runner, which he would have been after he maintained possession after his reception, he was now a runner, had given himself up in the field of play. Then fact that he scoots out of bounds is not as important. We wound the clock. It was a judgment call by that head linesman that he felt like he gave himself up in the field of play. It’s not a reviewable play. So winding the clock or stopping the clock is not something we review. So, in his judgment, he deemed that the runner gave himself up in the field of play voluntarily, which does put him down by contact in the field, so he wound [the clock].”
Steratore’s explanation makes sense, as long as the circumstances of the play are ignored. Watkins wasn’t “giving himself up”; he was trying to get out of bounds before being touched. Without the time to stand up and step over the white line, he did the best he could to get out of the field of play.
While it may have been a “judgment call” by the official, the end result reflected poorly-formulated judgment. Which means that this is the kind of call that should be reviewable for a clear error in the exercise of that judgment.
And not through a five-minute, product-placement, dog-and-pony show. This is precisely the kind of situation where an official calling the game in real time from a box above the field should have the power to buzz Steratore and say, “Your guy screwed up. Fix it. Now.”
Until the NFL embraces such fundamental changes to the way a game is officiated, the divide between the folks at home who know what happened and the people in black-and-white stripes who don’t will only get wider and wider.