Following the Buffalo Bills loss to the New England Patriots, there’s been no shortage of headlines, some of which fall under my area of expertise. Many of these stories have been less than pleasant to say the least. Mixed in with these darker themes, we should at least be treated to a little mirth when it comes to penalties this week. Remember, the last time we had the delight of a Bills vs. Pats tilt officiated by Gene Steratore, we saw the infamous “whistle in the middle of a play” and some time keeping related nonsense. That’s a high bar of officiating tomfoolery to aspire to, but don’t fret. Steratore came through again.
Standard and Advanced Metrics
Count and True Count
Count = number assessed. True count = number assessed + number declined/offset
The Bills had an excellent game using these measures. They did pretty well with thrown flags (right-hand columns) at two under the league rate. But they truly shine with assessed flags, coming in with a mere three. The Patriots did the opposite of good, coming in much higher than league rates in both measures. If you were looking to confirm how much the refs love the Pats, this isn’t the article for you. Data consistently shows that there’s no qualms tossing flags at New England.
Gene Steratore’s crew comes in right around the league rates. This week, there’s no need to temper the data based on crew-specific trends.
Yards and True Yards
Yards = Yards assessed. True yards = Yards assessed + Yards negated by penalty
For assessed yards, there’s not a lot to discuss here. The Bills are a little high through the lens of only three assessed penalties. The Patriots are a little low based on having nine assessed. This narrows the gap between the two, but the general narrative remains that the Bills had a much better penalty day than the Patriots.
When we look at negated yards, the Bills wiped out 23 on the back of one call. The Patriots negated 24 yards across several plays.
New England Patriots
The Stories: New England had a good amount of minor penalties. Three flags were offset, but I’ll cover those in the “sure to be a little shorter” section talking ‘bout Bills. Johnson Bademosi’s holding call came on special teams and was yardage only. Three of the four false starts were typical 5-yard affairs.
Rob Gronkowski had a busy day. His holding penalty wiped out seven yards. His offensive pass interference negated an 11-yard catch. I’ll talk about the roughness call soon.
Nate Solder was caught with an illegal block. This begins our wacky day with Gene Steratore. It’s pretty rare to see holding only negate partial yardage. This one negated six yards of an 11-yard gain. That’s in addition to a first down and the assessed yards.
Malcolm Butler was tagged with defensive holding. It gave the Bills two free downs in the process for 2.5 Harm.
The Patriots ended the day with a total of 12.0 Harm. That’s a rough day, and is mitigated mostly as a result of numerous minor penalties. Now back to the one false start I didn’t cover above. Here’s the play by play:
(2:53) PENALTY on NE-D.Allen, False Start, 6 yards, enforced at BUF 47 - No Play.
Do you see it? A 6 yard False Start? I checked multiple play-by-plays and they all agreed, so it was off to the game film. Technically, that’s exactly right. You’ve likely heard an announcer say “that’s a long [yardage number to go].” In this case, the ball was spotted at the Buffalo 47-and-three-quarters line (closer to the 48). Officially, this was recorded as the 47-yard line. After the penalty, the ball was moved to the New England 47. So you could say that the penalty was “a long 5.” Using the official record though, it’s a penalty of six.
The Stories: Despite the four with zero harm, there’s really only two boo-boos this week. The offensive holding by Vlad Ducasse was declined. The Patriots had managed to sack Tyrod Taylor for 20 yards on the play. Zay Jones was called for offensive pass interference. This was offset by a New England face mask penalty.
Eric Wood was called for holding as well. I said earlier that it’s rare to have a holding call only negate a portion of a play. This week we get a real treat with a holding call that wiped out ZERO yards of the play. McCoy had gained 11 yards and the hold happened as he was being tackled, which means he kept all the yards. Want more wackiness? ‘Cause Steratore knows wackiness. The play started at 2nd and 10 and McCoy had gained the first down. After the dust clears, the team gets credit for the result of all of this nonsense. It leaves them with a result of 2nd and 9.
LeSean McCoy was caught with illegal hands to the face. It wiped out a 23-yard gain in the middle of the third quarter when the game was still within reach. Ouch.
I know I’ve been picking on Steratore so let’s give some credit here. While it’s not emotionally the right decision, the series of calls that led to Jerry Hughes being flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct went about as well as it could have from an officiating standpoint (with one exception I’ll get to).
First, the rule book doesn’t allow for triple fouls, only double. This means that if you think both teams will be flagged, there is zero motivation to hold back. NOTE: I am NOT saying Bills players SHOULD have retaliated and gone after Gronk. What I AM saying is that from a rules perspective, it would have made zero DIFFERENCE if they did so immediately after it happened because of the Hyde penalty.
Micah Hyde was called for pulling the helmet off Danny Amendola after Amendola used his helmet to butt Hyde. I sincerely give the officials credit for these two flags. It’s rare to see them call both the instigator and the person retaliating, so kudos there.
Flagging Jerry Hughes was also the right call in all probability. We don’t know what he said, but there’s pretty specific rules when it comes to interacting with officials.
The only thing I personally think was off was that they didn’t exercise their option to disqualify Gronkowski from the game. The rule is very explicit that flagrant examples of unnecessary roughness (the penalty that was called) can lead to disqualification. Gronkowski’s actions fit the criteria for two separate clauses for this penalty, and there was a significant delay before he acted. Those two factors make it clear in my mind.
Getting back on track, the Bills had only 6.7 Harm in the game. They had a pretty good day for this metric at least.
Zaniness aside, this game highlights some very real issues facing the NFL. I’ve often found myself in the position of advocating for the refs, and I’ll do so again here. The NFL rule book is vast and complex. The refs do a phenomenal job juggling an absurd amount of real time data at professional athlete speed and comparing it to a encyclopedia’s worth of rules.
The problem arises in the one area that’s simplified. Enforcement is broken down into tiers that pull vastly different conduct into similar groupings. Is abusive language really the same severity as what Gronk did? Or the hit on Aaron Williams? If you ask the rule book, these are all equal to Von Miller’s “too slow” move on Tyrod Taylor earlier this year. Making matters worse, disqualification is left to the discretion of the referees and they are provided little guidance to help shape their decision.
Rob Gronkowski should have been immediately tossed from the game. Steratore missed the call there and that’s unfortunate. What’s more unfortunate though is the set of consequences and rules that put the officiating crew in a position where there was any doubt. (Patriots coach Bill Belichick at least had the good sense to pull Gronkowski from the game.)
I’ll get off the soap box and return to our regularly scheduled programming. The Bills had a much better day than the Patriots with penalties, and marks the second week of solid performance. This comes after a several week slide that contributed to their losing streak. The Bills’ playoff hopes are ready for the defibrillator and the team will need to take care of business down the stretch. Mistake-free football will certainly be a help.