Monday Night Football has again produced a bizarre NFL officiating controversy.
The mistake limited the Patriots' yardage on a pass to receiver Danny Amendola. In addition, an initial reading of the applicable NFL rule suggests referee Gene Steratore might have erred in placing the ball after the play.
The controversy occurred after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, scrambling toward the right sideline, lofted a pass toward Amendola. A whistle was clearly audible on the ESPN broadcast as the ball was in the air. Amendola made the catch at the Bills' 45-yard line, at which point officials stopped the play.
The Pats went on to miss a 54-yard field goal.
"Line judge lost track of the football, blew his whistle inadvertently," Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, told NFL Network after the game. "It was a mistake. Whistle shouldn't have been blown."
Blandino said he was "wondering why" the whistle was inadvertently blown in that situation, but he praised the refs for "doing a good job of handling where they were going to put the football because both teams are affected by the whistle blowing."
After play was halted, Steratore sought out line judge Gary Arthur for his initial discussion.
After huddling with his on-field crew for several minutes, Steratore announced that "when the receiver caught the football, there was an inadvertent whistle by an official on the field. By rule, the ball is dead at the spot where the reception was made. That is where the receiver gained possession."
NFL dead-ball instructions are discussed in Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1 of the NFL rulebook. Part of the rule states that "when an official sounds his whistle erroneously while the ball is still in play, the ball becomes dead immediately."
The rule goes on to note that if a player has possession at the time of the whistle, the team can elect to take possession at the point of possession or redo the play. But if the ball is loose "resulting from a legal forward pass" -- in other words, if it's in the air -- the ball is returned to the previous spot, and the down is replayed.
Steratore enforced the rule as if the whistle occurred when Amendola made the catch.
"In our judgment, we thought the whistle came a little later after the ball was thrown," Steratore said after the game. "So we felt that the receiver had possession at the time of the whistle, so basically we went to that spot, which we determined was about the 45-yard line."
Said Bills coach Rex Ryan: "Right before it's thrown is when the whistle happens. So that's -- Marcell stops. And then everybody stops. The thing I don't understand is how you can give it a completion if the whistle is blown there, while, let's just say the ball is in the air when the whistle blows. The fact of the matter is, everybody stopped."
Erroneous whistles are not reviewable by NFL replay.
Steratore also ruled that a member of the Bills' sideline interfered with an official -- possibly coach Rex Ryan, who walked in front of Arthur -- and added 15 yards to the play for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Steratore did not say who caused the sideline interference penalty to be called.
"Don't really get any defining people," Steratore said. "We really just, for our sake, anybody that would be in any obstructing, you know, situation that would be related to the team, in any regard. But I don't ask specifics. It's irrelevant for us, really, when we enforce it."
Brady, for his part, acknowledged that referees can make mistakes but said Steratore's crew is one of the best in the league.
"I'm not sure how much he would have gained," Brady said of the play during his weekly appearance on WEEI's "Dennis & Callahan Show." "The whistle blew, and the guys kind of stopped, so I don't know. I think the refs make mistakes too, so it's just one of those things. They're not perfect. We're not perfect as players. I know they get a lot of criticism and so forth, but that crew is a good crew. We've had them a lot, and those things happen. We have to figure out a way to overcome it."
The scene was the latest officiating controversy on Monday Night Football. In Week 4, officials missed an illegal-bat penalty in the end zone on a critical fourth-quarter play in the Seattle Seahawks' 13-10 victory over the Detroit Lions. A week later, the officiating crew did not notice a runoff of 18 seconds from the game clock during the Pittsburgh Steelers' 24-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers.
Information from ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak was included in this report.