Another Look at the Bengals/Steelers Wild Card Game: Did the Referees Decide It?
Before the Wild Card game I had a lot of respect for head coach Marvin Lewis and for the vast majority of their players. Despite Steeler fans jokes about the “criminal element” on the Bengals, there are a whole lot of good guys on the team, and a whole lot of talented players.
Now, I feel sorry for the good guys and talented players who play within the lines, as it were. Because what we’ve been hearing from the Bengals is a whole litany of excuses as to why they lost a game they probably should have won, although even that has a caveat attached.
As I said in my very brief game recap:
I feel bad for AJ McCarron. He did his best, kept his cool, and deserved to be the first QB ever to win a playoff game with less than four NFL starts under his belt. But I guess it was not to be.
I still feel bad for him. But he needs to grow up. His rather bizarre and rambling press conference afterwards demonstrates this.
It’s hard to imagine McCarron has never played in the rain. And while it undoubtedly made the ball more slippery and the footing less secure, this was the case for both teams, despite McCarron’s odd assertion after the game that it only rained when his offense was on the field:
It seemed like every time we got the ball it was pouring rain, wadn’t when they had it.
It gets weirder, too. When asked if he felt more comfortable throwing with the glove (which he did on some drives but not others) he said:
Yeah. The ball was soaking wet. (Center Russell) Bodine said that he was having trouble with the snap, so… I thought they’d at least put a towel over it, or something, but there was nothing done. I didn’t know it was done that way, but every time we got the ball it was soaking wet.
Memo to young Mr. McCarron—when it is pouring rain outside, the ball is likely to be wet. I didn’t hear Ben complaining the ball was soaking wet, and I saw plenty of Steelers drives where the rain was just as torrential as it was during the Bengals drives.
It is only human to try to find reasons to excuse yourself, especially for a young guy thrown into what had to have been a rather overwhelming experience. Jeremy Hill spent a lot of his press conference talking about what “we” did wrong, but then manned up on Twitter:
This ones on me… This city this organization deserves better only thing to do is continue to fight and come back stronger
— Jeremy Hill (@JeremyHill33) January 10, 2016
I very much disagree this one’s on him. There are a lot of other places to point the finger. First would be at whoever called that play. Take a knee three times, forcing Pittsburgh to take all its time outs, and then kick a 46 yard field goal. Not a chip shot, for sure, but defintely well within the range of their kicker, or any NFL kicker for that matter. If he makes it, the Steelers need a touchdown. If he doesn’t, they get the ball with a minute and a half and either an ineffective or a crippled quarterback. It would have admittedly been at the Steelers 29 yard line as opposed to the 9 yard line, where they got it after the fumble recovery, but if you can’t trust your defense to stop the Steelers under the scenarios laid out above, something is wrong.
Their defense did, too, more or less—the Steelers only made it to the CIN 47, with 18 seconds left. And that was with three time outs. If they have no time outs, surely there would be no threat whatsoever that they would run the ball. Maybe there would have been a miracle, but I would think you go with the percentages.
But to return to the refereeing, my lost respect for Marvin Lewis is not because of what seems in retrospect to be a blown call. No, it is for what I would consider to be a blown press conference. Let’s look at some of his remarks:
Upon being asked about Vontaze Burfict’s hit on AB:
He’s trying to go over and defend the play. There were a lot of plays out there and calls went different ways. They deemed that to be a hit to the head I guess, and others not today.
Lewis is undoubtedly referring to the hit by Ryan Shazier on Giovanni Bernard. If one of their players had hit Fitz or Jordan Todman like that I probably would have been mad, too. But according to former NFL Head of Officiating Mike Pereira it was a legal hit, for two reasons. First, Bernard was clearly established as a runner, and second, the “crown of the helmet” rule has to do with players lining up with their heads down and taking a shot at someone, not a quick play such as this. (You can hear more of his take on the officiating here.)
However, I notice Lewis didn’t complain that the call was blown dead before it should have been, thus nullifying the fumble return for a touchdown Shazier should have had. And stranger yet, when asked again if he thought it should have been a penalty, Lewis said:
“I don’t know. I don’t know if he touched him or not. I can’t tell.”
Presumably he, like “Pacman” Jones, thinks Brown should win a Grammy for his performance.
— Antonio Brown (@AntonioBrown84) January 11, 2016
And speaking of Jones, when asked if he was upset with Jones for losing his cool, Lewis said:
“Again, I’m not going to single out our guys. We had enough chances to win the football game.”
Perhaps the problem is he hasn’t “singled out” his guys enough. I can well imagine Lewis has invested a great deal of emotional energy in Jones, Burfict and the like. He took guys the rest of the league was afraid to and has turned them into very productive players. I’ve always admired him for this. But the truth would seem to be that he hasn’t managed to keep a sufficient disciplinary hold on them. And for that he should be taking the full blame. He knew what he was dealing with, and he let them get out of hand.
Yes, they are grown men, and yes, you can only control them so far. Many of us are tearing out our hair that Shamarko Thomas has not one, not two, but three catch interference penalties this season. Bud Dupree has twice drawn a penalty for excessive celebration. (The penalties were slapped on William Gay, but it was Bud Dupree joining in which drew the penalties. As Bob Labriola said on Steelers Live this afternoon, if you run into the end zone with the ball for a defensive touchdown, feel free to dance. Otherwise, you don’t get to dance.) Mike Tomlin has come in for his share of criticism for lack of discipline.
But Tomlin saw the problem and took action. He brought the refs in for various practices throughout the year after the Steelers took a lot of stupid penalties in the preseason and early games, and the Steelers ended up as the least penalized team in the league, despite the inauspicious start. And, more to the point, penalties such as those mentioned above merely hurt your team. They aren’t for things which injure the other team, or have the intent to do so.
Of course, intent is a tricky proposition. Did Vontaze Burfict intend to hurt Antonio Brown? Or, for that matter, Ben Roethlisberger when he put the coup de grace on his sack with the knee to the shoulder? (This also should have been a flag, whatever the intent.) On the latter, Ben Roethlisberger says he thinks not. But what is he going to say that doesn’t make him look like a whiner?
Basically, Steelers fans are going to believe, based on prior evidence, that Burfict intended to add a little extra hurt to the end of the sack, and would be pleased if it also upped the chances of injury. Bengals fans would view him as a wronged, misunderstood man, or at least the sort of Bengals fans who threw trash, including full water bottles and beer cans, at Ben as he left on the cart. We can never really know the truth. But if you judge by Burfict’s previous actions, he has a history, both in college and the NFL, of actions which appear to indicate a complete lack of regard for other players. When those actions continue after the whistle, you have to ask where playing hard ends and intent to injure begins.
But to return to Marvin Lewis, when asked about the playcall I mentioned above which led to the fumble, he said:
“No, I don’t think we were necessarily in field goal range there. You want to get the first down, and win the football game there by running the ball, and we gained six or seven yards on first down. I’m not second guessing that.”
The NFL play-by-play indicates the Bengals started at the PIT 26. Considering that the usual placement for the line indicating where a team needs to get to for a field goal attempt is the 33, that’s an odd statement. I could see it if he said he wanted to run some more time off the clock and maybe get closer for more of a chip shot, and I assume that’s what the actual thought process was. But honestly, why say they were out of field goal range? Although I suppose that the charitable view at this point is that he had just seen his team throw away their first playoff victory since 1990, the first of his tenure, and perhaps he scarcely knew what he was saying.
So let’s continue on to some of the other contested calls. The big one, of course, is that Joey Porter’s very presence on the field, taken in concert with the assumed “yapping” he was doing, which, given his history as a player would hardly be surprising, should have, if anything, resulted in off-setting penalties, leaving the Steelers with a 50-yard field goal attempt, and even possibly resulting in a penalty on him, none on Jones, and the Steelers moved back out of field goal range with 18 seconds left in the game.
The first question which comes to my mind is, given that the video shows Porter surrounded by referees during the entire time he was supposedly “yapping” at the Bengals’ players, why was no flag thrown? You can, of course, take the view that the NFL wanted the Steelers to win the game. You can also take the stance, as my husband’s English grandmother did, that the moon landing in the 1960s (and therefore presumably all subsequent manned space exploration) was nothing but a television production meant to fool the masses. For what purpose, I don’t know, as she has been dead for about 20 years now. Or take your pick of the many more recent conspiracy theories.
You might be right, of course. As they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t really out to get you. But the more logical question would be, why on earth would the referees not give every possible advantage to the home team in this situation, especially given that the crowd mood had turned quite ugly by this point? After all, the Steelers RAN for the tunnel as soon as the game was over, not taking any chances, despite their layers of protective equipment and their vast size and strength, and still had to endure a hailstorm of debris raining down on them as they ran off the field.
The “home field bias” is well-known and understood. Here is some information on this, from a review/discussion of the book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won by a writer (I couldn’t figure out who) on a site called The Fix is In. The lead authors of the book are Tobias J. Moskowitz, who is the Fama Family Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago and L. Jon Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated.
After determining that home field bias is real (according to the authors’ research, in the last ten years the percentage of home games won in the NFL is 57.3%) the authors speculated about the possible causes. (Comments in quotes from the book, not in quotes from the site author.)
“Before considering the causes of the home field advantage, keep this premise in mind: There is considerable economic incentive for home teams to win as often as possible. When the home team wins, the consumers—that is, the ticket-buying fans—leave happy. The better the home team plays, the more likely fans are to buy tickets and hats and T-shirts, renew their luxury suite leases, and drink beer, overpriced and watered down as it might be. The better the home team plays, the more likely businesses and corporations are to buy sponsorships and the more likely local television networks are to bid for rights fees…By extension, the leagues have an incentive for the home teams to win. Although attendance and revenue rise in step with winning percentage for most teams, they rise even more sharply with home winning percentage. And healthier individual franchises make for a stronger collective. Does this mean leagues and executives are fixing games in favor of home teams? Of course not. But does it make sense that they would want to take subtle measures to endow the home team with (legal) edges? Sure. It would be irrational if they didn’t.”…
As the authors write on page 138, “What we’ve found is that officials are biased, confirming years of fans’ conspiracy theories. But they’re biased not against the louts screaming unprintable epithets at them. They’re biased for them, and the bigger the crowd, the worse the bias. In fact, “officials’ bias” is the most significant contributor to home field advantage. “Home cooking,” as it’s called, is very much on the menu at sporting events.”
The authors then go through each major league sport and show where they found–and could prove–these officials’ biases existed.
In the National Football League, they write, “Home teams receive fewer penalties per game than away teams—about half a penalty less per game—and are charged with fewer yards per penalty….It turns out that more valuable penalties, those that result in first downs, also favor the home team….Before instant replay, home teams enjoyed more than an 8 percent edge in turnovers, losing the ball far less often that road teams. When instant replay came along to challenge wrong calls, the turnover advantage was cut in half [With the introduction of the instant rule, home field advantage shrunk by 29.4 percent according to the authors]…
Could referee bias explain a large part of the home field advantage in football? Absolutely….The fact that home teams in football have better offensive stats—such as rushing more successfully and having longer time of possession—could be the result of getting more favorable calls, fewer penalties, and fewer turnovers.” (pages 150-152)
With this in mind, it is interesting to revisit the Porter situation. After all, Porter, in theory, had no business on the field at that point. Or at least he had no business on the field according to the rules. But this rule is observed mainly in the breach, as a wide-angle shot of the injury time-out when Giovanni Bernard was down demonstrates—there were nine Bengals coaches on the field, and last time I checked they only have one head coach. Have a look:
Bengals are right. Coaches shouldn’t be out on the field. pic.twitter.com/nJs8rkkw5O
— jtkola™ (@jtkola) January 10, 2016
Of course, if Porter really was “yapping” at the Bengals players, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s remark that Porter is “an embarrassment to the coaching profession,” [via Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer] has some validity.
But Dale Lolley, who apparently agreed, just issued an apology to Porter, as Porter was merely escorting Brown off the field. His remark to Burfict after he appeared to interfere with one of the trainers assisting Brown was very brief and was spoken while standing right next to a referee (who would presumably have flagged anything inappropriate.) He ended up in the crush of Bengals players because Wallace Gilberry pushed him there, and still said nothing. Here is a link to his annotated video.
There are a lot of other things that could be discussed, such as, for instance, the non-false start penalty on A.J. Green on the snap that resulted in a touchdown for Cincinnati. Or how about flagging William Gay and Bud Dupree for “excessive celebration” for dancing in the end zone, even though the TD was reversed on review, but not flagging Vontaze Burfict, who kept the ball he intercepted and ran to the locker room, followed by Adam Jones, Rey Maualuga, and George Iloka? That should have resulted in both an excessive celebration penalty and a delay of game.
I realize calls are missed on a relatively frequent basis. The point is, trying to justify the Bengals loss by saying the refs threw the game is not defensible when you look at the actual circumstances of the game.
I will end with a quote from Dejan Kovacevic’s column “Which Wert, and Art, and Evermore Shalt Be: Steelers Once Again are Everything Bengals are Not.” It’s a fantastic column, one of his best. I’ve linked it, but it’s a pay site, and so unless you have a subscription you’ll have to take my word for it…)
The Bengals won the AFC North Division. They were 12-4. They made the playoffs for a fifth year in a row and for the seventh time in Marvin Lewis‘ 14 seasons as head coach.
They haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. Ickey Woods did the Ickey Shuffle that day. The opponent was the Houston Oilers.
After this game, Lewis offered little more than terse three-word non-answers to reporters’ questions. Specifically regarding having two of his defenders commit personal-foul penalties on the Steelers’ winning drive, both of those penalties profoundly obvious and even more profoundly stupid, Lewis had only this to say: “There were a lot of plays out there, and calls went different ways.”
Cincinnati management will keep Lewis for a 15th year. Count on it.
This is what losers do.
In the end, the Bengals couldn’t keep a one-point lead with less than two minutes left in the game, with the ball in their hands, after having disabled the Steelers’ quarterback and intercepted his replacement. I hope they figure out where to place the blame. Hint—it isn’t the referees. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”