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Sean McDermott can't get replay challenges to go his way

Sean McDermott can’t seem to see eye to eye with the NFL’s video review officials.

The Bills head coach dropped to 1 for 10 on replay challenges over the past two seasons after losing his bid to overturn a call in Miami on Sunday.

McDermott won an overturn the first time he threw his red flag onto the field, way back in a Week 3 game against Denver in the 2017 season. Since then he has lost nine straight challenges.

With six challenges this year, McDermott is tied for the most with Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone (5-1), Detroit’s Matt Patricia (3-3) and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (3-3).

“Obviously that’s something that, when you’re 1 for 10 in challenges you look at everything,” McDermott said earlier this week. “I’m not sure that wins and loses games, but that all adds in. We could burn a timeout when you’d like to have one at the end of the first half, an extra one to use there, so you look at it and evaluate it.

“We just have to go back and look at everything,” McDermott said. “Challenges, making sure our process is right, and the information that I’m getting, so we’re going to continue to work on that.”

How big of a deal is it? Debatable. Sunday’s failed challenge was the first time in McDermott’s nine failures that the loss of a timeout wound up hurting the Bills in a situation at the end of the second or fourth quarters.

The challenge came when Miami QB Ryan Tannehill was sacked in the second quarter and ruled down just inches over his own goal line. If McDermott won the challenge, it would have been a safety. But the Bills could have used the time out. With 5 seconds left in the half and just a few yards from field-goal position, the Bills were forced to burn their last time out and then try a Hail Mary pass. Had the Bills not lost the challenge, they might have gained a few yards and given Steven Hauschka a field-goal try.

Sean McDermott has words with down judge David Oliver in a game against New England in 2017. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Who knows? If the Bills got a field goal at the end of the half, maybe they would have been in position to win with a field goal at the end of the 21-17 loss.

“When there’s points on the line, you want to make sure — and that’s not a booth review like a normal scoring play — so I wanted to make sure that it’s reviewable and also the final call on the field and as well, as whether it is reviewable or not,” McDermott said of the Tannehill sack. “So when I got the information on those two, felt that we had the potential to get points. … I felt good about the chance to challenge. The cost-benefit, you have to weigh that as well. There’s a lot that went into it. Obviously, we can do a better job there, too.”

Aside from rookie head coaches Mike Vrabel of Tennessee and Steve Wilks of Arizona (0 for 5 and 0 for 1, respectively), McDermott has the lowest challenge percentage in the NFL. However, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin is 0 for 8 the past two years and also has lost nine straight, dating to 2016.

NFL coaches succeeded in getting a reversal of a call on 47.3 percent of their challenges in 2017. So far this year, the reversal rate on coaches challenges is down to 38.5 percent (47 of 122), according to Pro Football Reference.

On only one of the challenges did McDermott clearly get robbed. That was in the Week 3 win at Minnesota. A shovel pass from Josh Allen to Marcus Murphy bounced off Murphy’s facemask and was recovered by the Bills for a 12-yard loss. McDermott challenged the ruling of a fumble.

“That’s a pass, it’s not a run,” said CBS analyst Tony Romo. “This has got to come back.”

Retired NFL referee Gene Steratore agreed, saying “That’s a legal forward pass.”

It wasn’t overturned. The Bills scored a TD on the drive, anyway.

Like every head coach, McDermott gets advice from an assistant or assistants in the booth. He never has named exactly who is in his ear or passed the buck.

“Ultimately it is my responsibility to throw the flag or not,” he said. “You try, No. 1, not to get caught up in the emotion of the play. There’s a lot of things that go on with the emotions of a play, especially when you’re at home with the crowd. You get the best view I can from the position I’m in, and I talk to my guys up top there.”

Exactly what McDermott can do to improve his rate is ambiguous, aside from giving a different assistant in the booth authority and hoping that person has better in-the-moment instincts.

Many of the calls that are challenged are extremely close. The sideline catch by New England’s Rob Gronkowski in Buffalo in Week 8, which was challenged and upheld, required numerous slow-motion inspections before a ruling could be given.

One could argue it’s better to lose a challenge than get “gun-shy” about it and failing to challenge a play that could be overturned.

Either way, it’s a subject that gets fans – and even NFL owners – riled up. Bills owner Terry Pegula fumed after a TD pass to Kelvin Benjamin last year in New England was overturned on video review. Pegula said he would take his concerns to the league, which in March tweaked the definition of a catch. Under the new definition, Benjamin’s catch would not have been reversed.

And in 2016, the Bills authored a proposed rules change that would have allowed coaches to challenge any play on the field. The NFL didn’t go that far, only making slight tweaks to reviewable plays that year.

McDermott’s worst challenge came in a home loss to New England last season. He argued Tom Brady had been sacked before throwing an incomplete pass when Brady clearly tripped on his own teammate before throwing the ball away.

This season's Week 2 loss to the Chargers was a case in which McDermott desperately was trying to keep the Bills in the game with a challenge. The Bills were down, 21-3, in the second quarter when he challenged an L.A. fumble play in the second quarter. (L.A. recovered.) He was looking for any way to stop the bleeding.

“There’s a lot of reasons to challenge plays,” McDermott said. “Sometimes, it’s to create a spark. Sometimes, like yesterday, it’s potential points with respect to a potential safety. You try to do what’s in the best interest of the team at all times. Sometimes, you feel good about taking a chance just to get another look at it.”

SEAN McDERMOTT’S CHALLENGES

Week      Opp.     Result   Situation

2017 Week 3 Denver   W     A 44-yard Denver pass from own 11 ruled a catch. Overturned. Helped Bills force punt and get a FG.

2017 Week 4 Atlanta  L     A 39-yard Falcons pass on the sideline was ruled a catch. Upheld. A close but good call.

2017 Week 8 Oakland  L     Raiders given a first down on fourth-and-1 run from Bills 46. Upheld. McDermott tried to get turnover on downs.

2017 Week 13 New England L   Tom Brady tripped by own RB and threw INC. Upheld. Bad challenge. It was obvious no Bill touched Brady.

2018 Week 2  L.A. Chargers L  Tyrell Williams fumbled after a 20-yard catch and L.A. recovered. Upheld. Clear-cut decision.

2018 Week 2  L.A. Chargers L  Tight end Virgil Green touched ball while out of bounds after fumbling. Upheld.

2018 Week 3  Minnesota    L   Shovel pass from Josh Allen to Marcus Murphy ruled a fumble. Upheld. Terrible call by replay officials.

2018 Week 5  Tennessee    L    Challenge of spot after third-down completion at Titans 22. Upheld. Close call.

2018 Week 8  New England  L    Catch by Rob Gronkowski on sideline for 22 yards ruled in bounds. Upheld. Good ruling.

2018 Week 13  Miami       L    Challenge of spot on sack of Ryan Tannehill at Miami 1. Upheld. Close but a good ruling.

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