In a tearful and emotional response Wednesday, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent vehemently denied ever giving the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals a five-minute warmup period to resume Monday night's game that saw Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapse due to cardiac arrest.
Vincent, one of the league's top football executives, reiterated the same stance he took in the early morning hours of Tuesday on a call with media in the aftermath of Hamlin being transported to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in critical condition. ESPN play-by-play announcer Joe Buck said multiple times on the broadcast the NFL had given an initial instruction to teams to resume play after a five-minute warmup.
"I just want to be clear," Vincent started Wednesday on a Zoom call with media before his voice began to shake. "Just that suggestion alone was inappropriate, it was insensitive and, frankly, it lacked both empathy and compassion for Damar's situation, who is still and was fighting for his life this day. It lacked complete, and it was just so insensitive to think that we were even thinking about returning to play.
"The only thing that mattered to myself, the team here, the folks in the stadium and the coaches was the health and wellness of Damar and getting those coaches back to the locker room so they could look those players in their eyes and see who they are. They were hurting, there was a lot of pain. And talking to the commissioner [Roger Goodell] and communicating with everyone, it was just important … we just couldn't play."
The Bills-Bengals game, which saw the Bengals leading 7-3 with 5:58 remaining in the first quarter when play was suspended, remains postponed indefinitely. League executives say a decision on whether to resume the game at some point or rule it a tie or no contest must come "in the coming days."
The NFL has been under fire since Monday night for the supposed five-minute warmup suggestion that Vincent strongly denies. ESPN issued a statement Tuesday about its reporting.
"There was constant communication in real time between ESPN and league and game officials," the statement reads. "As a result of that, we reported what we were told in the moment and immediately updated fans as new information was learned. This was an unprecedented, rapidly-evolving circumstance. All night long, we refrained from speculation."
Buck told the New York Post this week that the information came from ESPN rules analyst John Parry, a retired long-time NFL official who refereed two Super Bowls. Parry, Buck told the newspaper, is in direct communication with the league. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that while Parry typically talks to the league's officiating department during "Monday Night Football" games, "this decision had escalated beyond those with whom Parry typically communicates."
On Wednesday, an ESPN spokesman declined comment beyond the previous statement when CBS Sports reached out following Vincent's second on-the-record denial.
Vincent said Wednesday he couldn't speak to how the five-minute warmup made it to air. He said he was in constant communication with referee Shawn Smith on the field and that multiple people associated with the league could hear his correspondence.
"In that time, I'm the center resource, I'm the center communicator, talking to Shawn Smith, who is now communicating with both head coaches," Vincent said. "At no time in my discussion in that hour-long time frame did we ever even, myself, reference, and the mic is open and there are multiple, multiple people that are receiving the information from me to give any directives to getting players ready to play.
"The only directive that came from myself as the emergency team was on the field caring for Damar was, Shawn Smith, I need to get both of the coaches together and ask that they take their teams to the locker rooms. We're going to suspend play. It is important that both Coach [Zac] Taylor and Coach [Sean] McDermott because it was just raw emotions watching. And I thought it was extremely inappropriate for millions and millions of people to watch this raw emotion as the medical team tried to care for this young man. Get them back to the locker room. So that is the communication that took place on field, real time, with multiple people listening in. That was the only directive."
The official NFL rulebook accounts for "emergency situations" in Rule 17, Section 1, Articles 4-11, and it references "Emergencies and Unfair Acts provisions in the Policy Manual for Member Clubs: Game Operations."
CBS Sports obtained a copy of those provisions, and it sheds some light onto the standard protocol for return-to-play for games that have been temporarily suspended, which is what Bills-Bengals had been at the time of the "five-minute" report.
All games that are temporarily suspended and resumed on the same day, and all suspended games that are postponed to a later date, will be resumed at the point of suspension. On suspension, the Referee will call timeout and make a record of the following: team possessing the ball; direction in which its offense was headed; position of the ball on the field; down; distance; period; time remaining in the period; and any other pertinent information required for an orderly and equitable resumption of play. The Referee will confer with the head coaches to determine the length of time for warm-ups prior to resuming the game, with a maximum time of ten minutes allotted for warm-ups. If suspension of play exceeds 30 minutes, however, the warm-up period may be extended to a maximum of 15 minutes. A discretionary ten-minute period, as determined by NFL Football Operations, may be included in the resumption of play timeline if it would allow for additional network personnel to return to their camera positions and provide greater coverage for broadcast and instant replay purposes.
Hamlin's injury occurred at 8:55 p.m. ET. At 9:18 p.m. ET the game was temporarily suspended. Seven minutes later, the ambulance transporting Hamlin left the stadium for the hospital. According to these provisions and timeline, the standard protocol would have allowed for up to 10 minutes for warming up before returning to play.
While there's nothing in these provisions about a near-death experience like the one Damar Hamlin suffered Monday night, the protocols are supposed to serve as a catch-all. These protocols are used for various injury timeouts when ambulances come onto the field, or when inclement or dangerous weather occurs and players have to go back to their locker rooms.
When the players and coaches returned to the locker room, a more robust conversation took place among McDermott, Taylor, Smith, Vincent, Goodell, NFL chief football administrative officer Dawn Aponte and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.
The NFL officially postponed the game at 10:01 p.m. ET.