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On Peyton Manning, NFL referee Bill Vinovich, the Broncos, and facemask penalties

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Fun fact: Peyton Manning is 0-6 with this guy as referee.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

By now you've probably seen the stat. The Denver Broncos, with Peyton Manningare 0-4 when Bill Vinovich is referee. In fact, Peyton Manning is 0-6 in his career with Vinovich, since Vinovich was promoted to referee in 2004.

I don't care who you are - Broncos fan, Manning fan, Colts fan, or otherwise - that has to be an alarming stat. That has to make you wonder. Because Peyton Manning wins a lot of games. Almost all of his games. For him to be winless with one specific referee heading the third team on the field is curious to say the least.

Let's be curious together, shall we?

Spare me your clichés

Before we begin, a disclaimer.

I know the Broncos didn't play well enough to win against the Bengals. I know the refs didn't throw four interceptions Monday night (although you could argue they threw one). I know Peyton Manning wasn't clutch, and I know the defense struggled, and I know all of these things contributed far more to the loss than Vinovich and crew.

For Manning to be winless with one specific referee is curious to say the least

We've spent a lot of time dissecting the game from the relevant football player/coach angles across MHR over the past few days. Please, take a look. We've broken all of that stuff down.

This post intends to talk about the officiating. If you're not here to talk about that or read about that, you're welcome to find one of the dozen articles on the football game that suits your interest. Respectfully, I'm tired of hearing these knee-jerk reactions and will likely respond with a simple, "Spare me your clichés" to most such responses in the comments. You've been disclaimer'ed.

Ravens, Chargers and Seahawks, oh my

First, a history lesson.

Bill Vinovich has been referee for four Broncos games since 2012, all resulting in Broncos losses. All were one-score games late in the fourth quarter. Two of them went into overtime.

The closeness, to me, implies that neither team dominated the other in these respective games, and bad reffing could have made a difference. So was there bad reffing?

Broncos 35, Ravens 38 (2OT) - 2012 AFC Divisional Playoff Game

Was there bad reffing? Yes. A writer for the Huffington Post - ostensibly a Broncos fan - did a thorough job breaking down all the ways Vinovich and crew basically cost the Broncos their home playoff game in 2012. He breaks down the misuse of the Tuck Rule that resulted in a Manning turnover, a crucial Ravens completion that should have been ruled incomplete, the lack of a defensive pass interference penalty that should have been called, and more. He spends over 2,100 words breaking down how bad Vinovich and crew were, and if you've come this far down the rabbit hole with me, you might as well go down a little further and look at his arguments. They are compelling (thanks to McGeorge in the comments).

Some Broncos fans, to this day, blame Bill Vinovich for that loss in January 2013. His is a name they haven't forgotten. The rest of us are only now jumping on that bandwagon.

Broncos 20, Chargers 27 - 2013 Week 15

Was there bad reffing? I can't find any evidence or abnormally high complaints about bad reffing from Broncos fans about this game.

Broncos 20, Seahawks 26 (OT) - 2014 Week 3
Against Manning's team, with Vinovich, everything's a seeming "point of emphasis." For his opponents, "Let 'em play."

Was there bad reffing? Yes. I spent quite a bit of time breaking down a number of plays in this game from the NFL rulebook angle, regarding Earl Thomas, Wes Welker and more. I emailed the NFL office with questions. I broke down GIFs. Others chimed in. I still maintain the refs got a lot of stuff wrong and played a hand in costing the Broncos the game.

I hadn't made the Bill Vinovich connection at the time of these inquiries. To me, it was just another anonymous NFL referee's crew. The officiating was simply bad enough, in my judgment, to raise my eyebrows and do further digging. Now that I'm aware of the Vinovich-Manning record, my eyebrows are raised higher.

Broncos 28, Bengals 37 - 2014 Week 16

Was there bad reffing? Yes. I'm breaking it down thoroughly below, starting with a call against Demaryius Thomas at a critical time that cost them 49 yards.

About that facemask penalty

On an absolutely huge third down play late in the 4th quarter against the Bengals, Demaryius Thomas was flagged for a personal foul - facemask - for doing next to nothing. His fingers "kind of touched" the inside of Dre Kirkpatrick's helmet, and it didn't knock him off his coverage. Thomas questioned the penalty, and John Fox said he planned to turn it into the league office.

Here's the thing: there is no distinction between a blatant facemask penalty and an incidental one anymore. If you tug on the facemask, or any part of the inside of the helmet at all, it's a personal foul.

Broncos Country isn't going to want to read it, but I'm here to write it anyway - yes, that was a legitimate facemask penalty that Demaryius Thomas committed again Dre Kirkpatrick Monday night.

It was extremely ticky-tack. Extraordinarily itchy trigger-finger-ish! But it was there.

Was there a ton of handfighting and grabbing by Kirkpatrick? Yes. Is that relevant to this discussion? Only in the fact that the ref chose to flag the facemask and not the defensive holding.

The entire penalty was also suspicious because of how important the play was to Broncos Country, and because we didn't see the act of flag-throwing on the Monday Night Football broadcast.  Did the ref throw the flag because Kirkpatrick asked for it? Did he throw the flag after Thomas made the catch? I waited until Wednesday morning for the All-22 film to post on NFL's Game Rewind so I could investigate this very point.

Critically, the ref threw the flag before Thomas caught the ball.

You can see the official in the lower right corner of the picture throw the flag before Thomas completes his route or a Bengals player begs for it. In other words, it was a "good" flag in that it was not influenced by the outcome of the play.

Now, from the official's angle, all he could see was Kirkpatrick's head move in a way that suggested a facemask pull. That's my gripe. In a very physical game where these two players were jamming and tugging and pushing and pulling, the ref had no hesitation throwing a flag for a bobbled helmet.

Finger on the trigger. Flags away.

"Let 'em play"

On the contrary, at least three times during the Broncos' game vs. the Bengals, I saw the refs seemingly look the other way as the Bengals committed blatant fouls. I received multiple tweets complaining about the refs on these plays. Some directed the complaints to me, as mentions. I ignored them (until the facemask penalty, of course). I thought, "the refs are letting them play."

That was true. The refs were letting them play.

One of the teams anyway.

This is where my complaints come in. This is where I join Broncos Country in a collective, "WTF?!" As I've broken down above, in a critical moment, the refs were extraordinarily trigger-finger-ish against the Broncos. Their fingers were far from the trigger in critical moments that favored the Bengals.

How can you call Demaryius Thomas for a facemask penalty on the play above and not call a holding penalty or block in the back for these fouls (on Jeremy Hill's 85-yard run)?

Critically, both fouls were committed against Broncos who were in position to possibly slow Hill down.

"Let 'em play."

How can you not call defensive pass interference for this bear hug on Demaryius Thomas before the football is even in frame?

Demaryius Thomas PI Bengals

(via reddit)

"Let 'em play."

How can you award the Bengals an interception when both Reggie Nelson and Julius Thomas had possession of the football as they rolled out of bounds?

Perhaps a schoolyard football-type ruling, where the spirit of the play outruled what actually happened in the play? Dual possession as the two players went out of bounds should have favored the intended receiver, per NFL rules, but for some reason (likely because Nelson comes down with the football out of bounds, even though that shouldn't matter), the refs rule it an interception.

"Let 'em play."

How can you even do whatever the heck this is?

"Let 'em play." Or in this case, "Let 'em ref."

To be fair

There was an exception to this Bengals one-sidedness. The only exception that I can think of seems to be Aqib Talib's early interception. One could argue that Talib's football wobbled a little, and that interception could have/should have been overturned.

I'll give you that. Barely.

So that's five close/ticky-tack/WTF calls for the Bengals to the Broncos' one.

5 to 1

That's the point.

I don't honestly believe Bill Vinovich is a Chargers fan who has conscious bias against the Broncos (it's possible, but I choose not to believe that).

I do believe he and his crew have a  tendency to not call the game equally on both sides. Against Manning's team, everything's a seeming "point of emphasis." For his opponents, "Let 'em play."

Does he want a close game? Does the NFL tell him to influence the game, to keep it close? It feels like it. Let Manning's opponents play, and keep the Broncos in tow.

The idea is a logical predecessor to Manning's 0-4 record in close games.

The NFL should look at how Vinovich's crews grade in Manning games vs. how they grade the rest of the year.

I don't like whining about non-called holds and missed blocks in the back. It's not fun. I only bring this up and point all this out because 1. Broncos Country asked me to and 2. Vinovich's record piqued my curiosity. There is a pattern of questionable officiating in Vinovich-Manning games, and it's gotten to the point where the NFL should look at how his crews grade in Manning games vs. how they grade the rest of the year.

Some Broncos fans have petitioned for Vinovich to be fired. That's fine. You can sign it if you like (I have not and don't plan to at this time).  I do hope this exploration reaches his and the NFL's eyes and ears, just as I'm convinced the petition to ban Phil Simms reached his and CBS' and made Simms a bit more palatable in Broncos games.

I want a more palatable NFL officiating experience when Bill Vinovich refs games.

I haven't gotten it yet.

I'm hopeful this exploration changes that.