The Denver Broncos were called for 10 penalties against the Buffalo Bills, who were only penalized five times. However, the raw numbers definitely do not point to an anti-Denver bias in the officiating this week.
Denver was called for false start five different times. One of these was on Courtland Sutton for moving his left arm before the snap. I disagreed with this call. Sutton did not move the rest of his body, did not move abruptly, and his movement did not trigger any defenders to move. The officials should not have called this penalty (though it looked like Buffalo had a defensive play dialed in that Denver was going to struggle against).
Three of the other false starts were clear and mandatory calls, and the fourth was ok. Apparently Buffalo was loud, but there is little to say here. If teams don’t false start, they won’t be penalized for it.
Adventures in Courtland Sutton
Four of the most interesting calls in the game featured Courtland Sutton. One was the bad false start above. His touchdown catch was the second. The officials on the field got the call wrong. However, I support their call. Watching him live, it does not look like a catch in bounds. Watching it in slow motion, it also did not look like a catch. Only seeing still shots convinced me that he actually caught the ball in bounds. Having replay to take a closer look and get that call correct was good, but I do not blame the officials one bit for getting the call wrong. There are a few plays each year where NFL caliber athletes do things that simply defy the repetition built instincts of officials, and I do not blame the officials. Its just good that they had replay to help out.
Russell Wilson throws one up and Courtland Sutton comes down with an unbelievable catch on 4th down for a TOUCHDOWN pic.twitter.com/vW2yR6mcY3— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) November 14, 2023
Suttons third quarter fumble was another interesting officiating call. A fumble, recovered near the sideline by a swarm of players where its not clear who was inbounds or out of bounds is basically an officials worst nightmare. There is only one official providing coverage, and he has to in an instant go from spotting the ball, to bean bagging the spot of the foul, getting into position to rule on both recovery and if the ball goes out of bounds. Replay is very helpful here with figuring out if the recovery happened in bounds, but even then the play was all but impossible to get the correct call on. I have a small degree of confidence that the officials were correct, but this type of play is just not something that officials are well positioned to add value to the game on.
Mike Florio wrote a long article complaining about some ambiguities (as he sees it) on catches. One example was a Sutton catch with just under seven minutes left in the game. Sutton jumped into the air for the ball, was tackled midair by several Bills. They pushed him from seemingly beyond the line to gain to before it, and he did not have clear grasp of the ball until he was short of the line to gain.
Additionally, the ball popped out immediately after Sutton hit the ground. I have no desire to litigate what is or is not a catch – the league keeps clarifying its stance and issuing different guidance to officials. But Florio is very wrong about one part of this – there is no space for that play to be a catch and fumble. Forward progress is a very important safety rule for football, possibly the most important one. As a consequence of it, there is no room for a player to fumble while being driven backwards. The only options were incomplete pass or forward progress. I think the ruling of forward progress was obviously correct – though the officials did mess up the spotting of forward progress and had to be bailed out by their replay reviewer.
Peyton and Payton Call It Right
Immediately after the Sutton forward progress play, Denver tried to run a quick play. The officials prevented Denver from snapping so that Buffalo could substitute. There is a lot of complication here. Payton was correct – Denver did not substitute on the previous play, so Buffalo was not entitled to. However, Referee Bill Vinovich also incorrectly announced it was fourth down after forward progress. He did not kill the game clock to correct himself, and it is not immediately clear how fast he did correct his error. If he, or another official felt that his announcement had sowed confusion or disadvantaged either team, they must call an officials timeout. They could then correct the announcement, wind the game clock, and start a 25 second play clock. This would have been an appropriate response. Forcing Denver to slow down their game, and then penalizing Denver for the resulting confusion was extremely poor officiating.
End of Game Penalties
The Defensive Pass Interference call with less than a minute left in the game was pivotal for Denver. Watching it live, I thought it was a questionable call – because no player has any more right to be in a spot than any other, so it looked like Jeudy blocked back into Buffalo defensive back Taron Johnson. This should go to show just how important angle is to making a good call. Because it was so important, everyone watching got to see several different angles of the play. The officials got it right. Johnson plows into Jeudy without having ever looked at where the ball was. If he had looked back and been playing the ball, he probably could have done almost exactly the same action and it would not have been a penalty.
However, by not playing the ball, he instead committed textbook interference. Officials do not like penalties. We especially hate them late, and especially when they can determine the outcomes of close games. Both the defensive pass interference, and the twelve on the field penalties served to decide the outcome of the game. Fortunately for the officials, both were obvious, necessary, and correct calls.
The officials did make a mistake with the twelve men on the field penalty. It should have been flagged as an illegal formation (because no one was trying to get on or off the field), as soon as this became obvious. Instead they waited until the snap occurred. This application could have had a couple of different implications for the outcome of the game, most of them inconsequential. Nevertheless, it shows improper procedure.
Denver had this same officiating crew in week one, and I was unimpressed with them in the first week of the season. Things have not gotten better. They spotted the ball inconsistently, inaccurately, and without confidence. They put the teams in positions to make errors. I noticed several times where the officials allowed confrontations to escalate because they were not fast enough intervening.
In week one I felt that the crew had inconsistent standards for holding penalties, and that was still true this week. I noticed multiple technical errors from the crew hamstringing the game. Referee Bill Vinovich has had a long and excellent career officiating, and it is painful to see him struggling to lead in these circumstances. But two times watching this crew was twice too many.