FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Christmas came about 10 hours early Sunday for the New England Patriots.
Whether that was in the form of the presence of the Buffalo Bills under the tree in Gillette Stadium, or senior vice president of officiating Alberto Riveron and VP of replay operations Russell York under the mistletoe in the Art McNally GameDay Central room in Manhattan, depends on your rooting interest.
If you love the Patriots, you love the presence of the hopeless Bills, who are 3-28 against Tom Brady and never have beaten him as a starter in Foxborough. That trend continued by a score of 37-16. When you look at such numbers, you shrug your shoulders and say, “So what if Kelvin Benjamin got jobbed out of a touchdown catch? What does it matter?”
It doesn’t … unless you’re the Bills, the rest of the NFL, the last two former heads of officiating or anyone who understands what replay was supposed to do.
The intent of replay was to eliminate human error. Riveron and York, two rookies in their jobs, repeatedly add to it.
With 2 seconds left before halftime, Benjamin snagged a pass over cornerback Stephon Gilmore, dragged both feet in the end zone and pulled the ball in for the go-ahead touchdown. Then Riveron called.
Game referee Craig Wrolstad’s crew signaled touchdown. No one complained but Riveron and York decided if the Bills had the lead there had to be something fishy, so they stopped the game and began searching for video evidence to overturn the call. It took about a day and a half to find it but as the Bills waited, 11-year veteran Richie Incognito knew what was coming.
“You can tell,” Incognito said. “They start looking at the left foot and the right hand and his fingernails, and you know it’s not going to go your way.”
Wrolstad said New York overturned his crew’s call because “When the receiver got confirmed control of the football, he was not able to get both feet down in bounds. So his back foot was already off the ground and it stepped out of bounds. His firm control did not occur until after he had one foot off the ground.”
This led most people to wonder, “what’s he talking about?”
Two such people were the previous men who held Riveron’s job, Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino. Both now work as analysts for Fox Sports and made clear they felt Riveron was not only wrong but officious.
“Regarding the Buffalo no touchdown, nothing more irritating to an official than to make a great call and then someone in a suit in an office in New York incorrectly reverses it,” Pereira tweeted.
“It is more and more obvious that there isn’t a standard for staying with the call on the field.”
Riveron soon issued his own statement, claiming “when Kelvin Benjamin gains control, his left foot is off the ground. The receiver only has one foot down in bounds with control. Therefore it is an incomplete pass.”
Tweeted Blandino: “In New England, the issue is whether Benjamin had control with left foot down,” he said. “Did not see anything clear & obvious to the contrary.”
Neither did the Bills.
“Somebody in Boston got the refs on the payroll,” linebacker Jerry Hughes muttered as he trudged toward the locker room. “Y’all paying them big money out here.”
After having time to cool off, Hughes was more restrained. But as he adjusted the collar of his dress shirt he was asked if he felt, as many do, that the Patriots get all the calls. His eyes widened for a moment before he said, “It does creep in.”
Riveron has helped decide four victories for the Pats this season, his first in the position of head of officiating. The first came when Brandin Cooks caught a 25-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds left to beat Houston, 36-33. Cooks had both feet in the end zone but lost control as he hit the ground out of bounds. It was ruled a touchdown and Riveron did not overturn it, claiming he had no video angle showing Cooks losing control of the ball when he hit the ground.
Then came Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ seeming 4-yard catch that he fumbled through the back of the end zone once he crossed the line. It was ruled a touchdown but Riveron overturned it, claiming Seferian-Jenkins didn’t have control of the ball.
Then came the Jesse James call in the end zone last week in Pittsburgh and now Sunday’s on Benjamin. The Jets, Steelers and Bills all felt their player had control of the ball and so did officials on the field. Regardless, Riveron and York overruled them, fueling the belief held by many dating back to the “Tuck Rule” that Coach Bill Belichick’s Patriots get the close calls.
Truth be told, they do but this is not a new phenomenon. Not that many years ago the Patriots never got those calls. They got what the Bills got. They got the shaft.
This was especially true against Don Shula’s Dolphins, who were always in the playoffs. Many of today’s Patriots fans are too young to remember those days or when Chuck Noll’s Steelers or Vince Lombardi’s Packers got the calls, but that’s how it was and how it always will be. Winners get the calls.
It’s why nobody suggested reviewing Rob Gronkowski’s phenomenal one-handed touchdown catch Sunday after they couldn’t get to the replay room fast enough to review Benjamin’s.
Even Gronk was baffled at Riveron’s reasoning.
“Why wasn’t it a catch?” Gronk asked. “I saw it. I mean, what was the ruling? I didn’t get that. He made a nice play.”
He did, but for the wrong team. He made it for the guys who have lost 28 of their last 31 to the Patriots.
When you win you get the calls in life because you make the plays so often there’s an expectation you will again. There’s expectations when you don’t make them too and if the losers do, there’s always Alberto Riveron and Russell York in a dark room in New York, running video forward and back until they convince themselves you didn’t.
Even though you did.
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