The 2015 NFL season has been marred by officiating controversies and inconsistent calls, and none may have been more high-profile than the blunders made Monday night in the Patriots' 20-13 win over the Bills.
The seven-man officiating crew at Gillette Stadium, led by referee Gene Steratore, made three indefensible errors in the game, according to a source from the NFL Referees Association who has officiated dozens of NFL games.
There was an inadvertent whistle that negated a potential touchdown pass to Patriots receiver Danny Amendola; Patriots running back James White scored a touchdown on a play that should have been whistled dead; and the final 2 seconds of the game clock were mistakenly run off after Bills receiver Sammy Watkins rolled out of bounds.
"Guys are rolling their eyes over that performance," the source said. "That was really bad."
Let's break down the three plays and explain what should have happened:
Play No. 1: The inadvertent whistle
With 14:05 left in the third quarter, Tom Brady scrambled to his right and lofted a pass to Amendola, who had beaten his defender and had nothing but open space behind him. But one of the officials mistakenly blew his whistle during the middle of the play, costing the Patriots a big gain and potentially a touchdown.
The official was line judge Gary Arthur, and it hasn't been an easy season for him. In Week 1, Arthur was trampled by a Ravens player on a punt against the Broncos and suffered gruesome injuries: nine broken ribs, a broken collarbone, and a partially collapsed lung.
Monday night's game was Arthur's second game back, and our source believes Arthur blew the whistle because he became skittish once Brady and the action of the play rolled his way, toward the sideline.
After huddling with his officials for 1 minute and 55 seconds, Steratore awarded Amendola a 14-yard catch, then assessed the Bills an additional 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct for a coach interfering with the play.
"What we do from that point onward is find out where the football was at the time the whistle was blown," Steratore said. "We deemed it to be, in our judgment, received by the receiver, as we stated, at the 45-yard line, I believe."
And while NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino called the whistle a clear mistake, he praised Steratore's handling of the situation.
"Once it did happen, the crew I thought did a good job of handling where they were going to put the football," Blandino said Monday night. "Because again, both teams are affected by the whistle blowing. Both teams stopped, and so we can't assume what would have happened and so we gave the ball to the Patriots at the spot of the catch and then enforced the penalty from there."
But upon review, the ball was still clearly in the air when the inadvertent whistle was blown, and our source believes that the officials didn't call that correctly.
"They should have just blown the play dead, but were looking to appease both sides," the source said.
Play No. 2: James White’s touchdown
With six minutes left in the third quarter, the Patriots caught the Bills defense substituting, quick-snapping the ball while Jerry Hughes was late running onto the field from the sideline, and White scored a 6-yard touchdown to put the Patriots ahead, 20-10.
But the Patriots never should have been allowed to snap the ball, according to the source. A bird's eye view of the play shows that Patriots tight end Scott Chandler began running onto the field from the sideline, but quickly reversed course and retreated back to the sideline.
The Bills countered by sending three new players on the field, while Jerry Hughes was looking over to the sideline for instructions and was very late getting back to the new line of scrimmage. When the Patriots snapped the football, the Bills were barely set, and Hughes was 15 yards in the backfield.
Even though the Patriots technically didn't substitute, the officials should have stood over the ball and not allowed the Patriots to snap it until the Bills were given Bills ample time to get their substitutions into the game and set up their defense, per NFL rule 5.2.10, in which the NFL considers a "simulated" substitution like a normal substitution.
From the rule book
The touchdown also should not have counted because when a player is so far in the backfield, as Hughes was, officials are supposed to whistle the play dead and assess the penalty. But they let the play stand.
Play No. 3: Sammy Watkins rolls out of bounds, clock doesn’t stop
On the final play of the game, with the Bills trying to get in range for one last Hail Mary pass, Watkins caught a pass at the Buffalo 48, then, in an effort to get out of bounds to stop the clock, stumbled backward and fell out of bounds at the 47.
But head linesman Ed Walker didn't stop the clock, instead ruling that Watkins gave himself up as a runner inbounds. The final 2 seconds ticked off instead of the Bills having one last chance from their 47.
"The fact that he scoots out of bounds is not as important," Steratore said after the game. "It was a judgment call by that head linesman that he felt like [Watkins] 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."
Steratore's explanation sounds good, but the source said Steratore was just covering for Walker, who is in his second NFL season and used to officiate in the Pac-12.
The source said Walker mistakenly applied the college rule instead of the NFL rule. Just because Watkins went backward does not mean he gave himself up as a runner; running sideways or backward is still considered trying to "advance" the football. For the runner to surrender himself, he has to truly give up on the play — such as when a quarterback slides before taking a hit.
"In the NFL, the way it's always been officiated is if a guy gets out of bounds, you give it to him and stop the clock," the source said. "But he called it like the college rule. I'm not sure he knew the NFL rule."
Steratore, 52, has been an NFL official since 2003 and a referee since 2006. NFL officials are graded by the league's officiating department after each game; the highest-ranked officials work the playoff games, and working the Super Bowl is the ultimate reward.
Steratore has worked the playoffs in eight of his 12 seasons and was the alternate referee for the Colts-Saints Super Bowl in 2010. By day, Steratore owns a janitorial supply company outside of Pittsburgh, and he officiates NCAA Division 1 men's basketball games in addition to NFL games.
The NFL has 122 officials this year, and it churns the bottom of the list every offseason, releasing the lowest-performing officials and hiring 10 or so new officials. The 10 new officials this year all previously worked in major college football conferences and are graduates of the NFL Officiating's Advanced Development Program, which identifies the top 20 or so college officials and trains them to transition to the NFL game.
The seven-man officiating crews for each game are assigned over the summer and work together each week during the season. The referee is in charge of the crew, but each member has a responsibility — watching the linemen for holding, watching the line of scrimmage for false starts and offsides, watching the defensive backfield for pass interference, and so on.