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First-year referees were unkind to Bills

Sean McDermott reached his breaking point in early December.

The Buffalo Bills’ coach watched his team commit 13 penalties in consecutive games coming out of the bye week. While they got away with the self-inflicted wounds against Jacksonville in Week 12, they weren’t so lucky against the Miami Dolphins in Week 13. Of the 13 penalties that cost the Bills 120 yards that day, six of them came before or after the whistle.

“We always take ownership of all of it. That’s where we start,” McDermott said last month. “You try and peel back the layers and say, ‘OK, if it’s pre-snap or post-whistle – those are the ones you’ve heard me talk about before – they’re non-negotiable.’ Those are the ones that hurt.

“The ones that happen during the course of the play – which ones were the aggressive penalties and which ones were technique-based where we were out of position or used the wrong technique, or could’ve used better technique – you try to put them in the bucket so that we can improve on that. Certainly, that’s an area that we must improve moving forward.”

To the Bills’ credit, they did. The team committed seven penalties in Week 14, but then only three in each of the final three games this season. For the year, the Bills were flagged for 116 accepted penalties, which tied for eighth most in the league. They ranked second behind the Kansas City Chiefs following Week 13.

That number is the most the Bills have had since 2015, but doesn’t come as a huge surprise when looking at the number of flags around the league.

Officiating crews assessed 3,447 penalties in 2018, the most ever. First-year referees Shawn Hochuli and Shawn Smith called the most penalties, with Hochuli’s crew handing out an NFL-record 253 and Smith’s crew assessing 228. For comparison, Bill Vinovich’s crew called the fewest penalties at 169.

Hochuli handled two Bills games – the season opener against Baltimore and the game in Miami. Against the Ravens, Buffalo was penalized 10 times for 100 yards, meaning in those two games, the Bills were flagged 23 times for 220 yards. The Ravens and Dolphins combined for 17 penalties for 167 yards.

The Bills drew Smith’s crew twice – against the Bears in November and Patriots in December. The game against Chicago featured 25 combined penalties (10 for 163 yards against Buffalo and 14 for 169 yards against the Bears), while just eight combined penalties were called in the game against the Patriots (3 for 29 yards against the Bills and five for 49 yards against New England).

In all, seven of the Bills’ 16 games were officiated by first-year referees. The team was penalized 61 times in those games, an average of 8.7 per game, as opposed to an average of 6.1 in games called by veteran officials.

The other first-year referees in 2018 were Clay Martin and Alex Kemp. Martin’s crew worked two Bills games – at Minnesota and home against the Jets. The Bills were called for 12 penalties that cost them 184 yards against the Vikings and seven penalties for 47 yards against New York. Martin worked the Week 2 game against the Los Angeles Chargers, calling six penalties on each team. The Bills were penalized for 31 yards and the Chargers for 45.

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The Bills made official the addition of wide receiver Duke Williams to a reserve/future contract Monday.

Williams, 25, is a big target (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) who led the Canadian Football League in receiving yards in 2018, making 88 catches for 1,579 yards and 11 touchdowns (tied for the CFL lead) for the Edmonton Eskimos. Williams ran a 4.71-second 40-yard dash at the Auburn Pro Day and 4.72 at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. He spent training camp that year with the St. Louis Rams before being released during final cuts.

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The website overthecap.com, which diligently tracks which teams are in line for compensatory draft picks every year, released its final projection for April's draft Monday. The Bills are not expected to receive any compensatory picks after signing more free agents than they lost last offseason.

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