The inadvertent whistle is justly getting most of the attention, but the Patriots’ 20-13 win over the Bills was a terrible game all around for the zebras. And the Boston Globe has a source in the referees’ union who blames the blown call on the final play of the game on an official who mixed up a college rule with an NFL rule.
Here’s the play, a pass to Sammy Watkins that saw the Buffalo receiver roll backward toward the sideline in an attempt to get out of bounds to stop the clock. Instead, head linesman Ed Walker said that Watkins had given himself up and kept the clock moving, ending the game without giving Buffalo one last shot at a hail Mary play from their own 47.
Speaking to a pool reporter, referee Gene Steratore said “the receiver [Watkins] gave himself up voluntarily in the field of play.”
Well, here’s the Globe’s Ben Volin, citing a source “from the NFL Referees Association, who has officiated dozens of NFL games.” Volin’s source says that Steratore didn’t believe what he said, and was just covering for his head linesman, who is in his second NFL season after moving up from 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.”
To protect defenseless players, the NCAA has more liberal rules on when a player gives himself up—roughly, any time a ball carrier on the ground, or even goes out of bounds while moving backward. In the NFL, a player has to clearly and intentionally slide or kneel to give himself up.
Did Walker brainfart and use the rules he had gone by for so long in college in a situation where they didn’t apply? We’ll never know, barring an admission, but observers quickly noted that Walker’s call would have been the right one in college.
In either case, the blown call was yet another example of the NFL rulebook being a tower of kludges upon kludges unparsable by the human brain, or of officials who improperly or inadequately trained and prepared, or, most likely, both.
Which doesn’t mean last night’s game wasn’t particularly rough.
“Guys are rolling their eyes over that performance,” the source said of his fellow officials. “That was really bad.”