Game 150: A Week in the Life of an Officiating Crew
Joined: December 31st, 2004, 9:55 am Posts: 12423
Game 150: A Week in the Life of an Officiating Crew
Game 150: A Week in the Life of an Officiating Crew The MMQB went behind the scenes with NFL referee Gene Steratore and his crew for an unprecedented look at the pressures and responsibilities of the third team on the field on NFL Sundays: the seven men in stripes who enforce the rules. In Part I, we meet—and agonize with—the boss
By Peter King Note from The MMQB’s editor-in-chief, Peter King:
In November The MMQB was granted unprecedented access to an NFL officiating crew during the week of the Nov. 17 Ravens-Bears game in Chicago. My video partner, John DePetro, and I were able to go where the officials went; we focused on four members of the seven-man crew in the week leading up to the game and then covered the officials’ Saturday rules meeting at a Chicago airport hotel, their group dinner that night, their pre- and post-game locker-room rituals and a breakdown of their game at Soldier Field.
NFL officials customarily are not allowed to speak to the media other than to a pool reporter after a controversial call in a game. We believe this is the first time that the third team on the field each Sunday, the officiating crew, has been profiled to such an extent and in such depth, with the officials allowed to speak freely about their jobs on the field and their lives off it, and the pressures that come with their responsibilities.
Why “Game 150?” The NFL numbers each of its 256 regular-season games, and at the top of each piece of paperwork that the crew members complete after a game is a spot for the number. Baltimore-Chicago was Game 150.
The series will be presented in three parts:
Part 1, Wednesday, Dec. 4 — The Referee
Part 2, Thursday, Dec. 5 — The Crew
Part 3, Friday, Dec. 6 — 24 hours of football: Saturday preparations and Game 150.
In addition to the stories, DePetro’s video will take you somewhere you’ve never been before: into the homes and the jobs and the locker room—into the lives—of an NFL officiating crew.
Monday, Nov. 11., Washington, Pa. You get the address and rough directions to National Football League referee Gene Steratore’s house 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh, and you drive past what looks to be the place. Blank mailbox. No number. Keep driving. You turn around a quarter-mile down the road and go back, stop, and look up again. You think this looks like the place, so you go up to the door, and there he is: referee 114. Gene Steratore welcomes you in with a big smile. He’s cooking angel hair and fresh vegetables in the kitchen.
But the address …
“I don’t put the address on the mailbox,” he says. “I don’t need people to know where I live.”
Three years ago, after a controversial call at the end of a Dolphins-Steelers game, news crews showed up at his local janitorial supply business. A caller to the business told Steratore, “I hope you die of AIDS.” Thus Steratore’s reluctance about his address.
Steratore is 50 and divorced. This is his 11th season as an NFL official and his eighth as a referee—the head of a crew. He is engaged to be married for a second time, to a local college math professor, Lisa Mauro, and you can tell how smitten he is; before games, so as not to confuse the official balls with others that might be found on the sidelines, his crew marks all 24 with the initial “L” (for Lisa) with a silver Sharpie, just below the NFL shield. Steratore has three grown children from his first marriage and lives with his son Gene II, who is 24. Steratore the dad has some officiating confidants, including his brother Tony (a veteran NFL back judge), former ref Jerry Markbreit, and the six men on his crew. But Geno, as dad calls son, is a stickler about the rules, and he’s not afraid to tell his father when he messes up. The NFL likes Gene Steratore. You can tell by the assignments: He’s reffed the last three Peyton Manning-Tom Brady games. He’s self-assured, confident making the calls and even more confident when the microphone is turned on and he has to explain the penalty to America. His folksy Pittsburgh accent helps. When I told one NFL coach I was doing this story, he said, “I like Steratore. He’s the kind of guy I’d like to have a glass of wine with someday.”
That couldn’t happen on game weekends; the NFL’s 119 officials cannot drink alcohol on the day before a game, and even a beer after the game is frowned upon. Tonight Steratore steers clear of the bottle of Da Vinci Chianti on the table and drinks a cola with dinner. He’s got tape to watch, which he does either on the big-screen TV in his living room or in his office across the hall from the living room, on his laptop or the league-issued Surface tablet. By Tuesday, Steratore will be active on Ref 360, the secure NFL program accessible only to the league officiating department and the 119 officials that logs all grades, appeals and final league marks for each crew each week. And, by 7 a.m. Tuesday, when the hard drive with the week’s plays from every TV and coaches video angle shows up by FedEx at his front door, Steratore can watch any play from any game except the Monday-nighter at the click of a mouse.
Tuesdays are nervy times for the officials. “Our moment of truth,” Steratore says. That’s when the preliminary grades from the games just officiated are emailed to every official, usually by 2 p.m. Eastern Time. The NFL employs a crew of officiating supervisors, usually former officials, to pass judgment on the current guys. In this case former umpire Ed Coukart is the supervisor assigned to the Texans-Cardinals game Steratore’s crew had worked the previous day, and Coukart spends Monday going over each official’s performance on every play. The grades can be appealed by the crew chief, and supervisors conference with league bosses Wednesday to review the grades before they become final late that day.
Steratore red-eyed back from Phoenix last night after the Houston-Arizona game. That turned out to be a rough one for the crew and will be a big part of this week. Steratore already watched the video of the game once, mostly on the way home, using one of the thumb drives that each official receives before he leaves the stadium, containing an instant copy of the TV broadcast. But Steratore will watch more tonight. He found a couple of plays troubling and knows they’re being reviewed by Coukart at his home in Ohio today.
Troubling might be the wrong word. Agonizing is more apt. As he reviewed the game over the course of several hours Steratore ran one questionable non-call back and forth for 15 minutes; I’d guess he looked at it 30 times, from every angle. “This is so close!” he says on the 20th look or so. You soon realize that playoff and Super Bowl assignments hang on interpretations of plays like this, running over and over on Eddie Coukart’s home tape machine on Monday and then in the NFL Officiating Command Center at 345 Park Avenue every Wednesday. Other plays from the Texans-Cardinals would be similarly microscoped. But let’s take this one first.
As Steratore turns on his TV in the living room and fast-forwards the CBS broadcast to the Texans-Cards play he’s talking about, he says: “This business is a tinderbox. You’re walking on a cliff on every play. I want to make sure we get the fouls everyone sees. My belief is you go fishing for whales in this business. Don’t go fishing for minnows.”
On this night we’ll walk the edge of that cliff, video-wise, on two plays in-depth. The first: Ageless Arizona pass-rusher John Abraham steams around Houston right tackle Derek Newton, taking the long way to quarterback Case Keenum. As he turns the corner and heads toward Keenum, Abraham has his jersey grabbed for two-tenths of a second, maybe. You barely notice the restriction at first glance–it’s like the skip of a record or a quick stutter in a speech. If you watch it enough times, you see Abraham being held up for an instant. No more.
Steratore keeps running it back and forth. The TV announcers, Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots, didn’t notice the tug. On the field, Steratore didn’t call it. “There’s the tug,” Steratore says. “He’s two yards from the quarterback. Could he have gotten there … if the quarterback is in his throwing motion when that occurs? Do you call that? Is it big enough?”
I don’t answer for a while. We watch it 10 or 12 more times, normal speed and slow-motion, and finally I say, “I wouldn’t call that.”
“Okay,” Steratore says. “We just watched that for what? Ten or 15 minutes? For the part of the play that takes maybe 1.3 seconds? And you see something, but you’re not sure how much it is. I didn’t call it because I felt like it wasn’t enough of a restriction. But understand, when it’s reviewed by the supervisor or the guys at the league, that there’s a chance that’s enough and that’s a miss. That’s how finely tuned we are. Then understand that five of those happen throughout the course of 15 weeks we work, and your chances of working an AFC or NFC Championship, or the big game, are gone. On maybe five of those plays in an entire year. That’s how tightly scrutinized this business is.
“And all for the right reasons; don’t get me wrong. That is not a complaint. One of the things I’m loving about [rookie VP of Officiating] Dean Blandino is his attitude of, ‘Guys, let’s stop officiating for the grades. Don’t worry if it’s a coin-flip play and you were downgraded. Let’s dissect it, and let’s learn from it.’ ”
Easier said than done. Steratore has never refereed a Super Bowl, and he very much wants to. With Game 150 on the horizon, he has started to think this could be his year. In the first nine weeks of the season he’s had only two downgrades, officiating parlance for incorrect calls. This game worries him, but he’s trying to be a good officiating soldier and follow Blandino’s mantra: Officiate the game. Don’t officiate for grades. “I said that every year too,” says Mike Pereira, the league’s officiating czar from 2001 through 2009. “But it’s tough. As an official the grades weigh on you like a sledgehammer.”
Now Steratore advances to the sixth play of the fourth quarter of Houston-Arizona. Is this play worthy of a UNR call? That’s officiating shorthand for “unnecessary roughness.” (Every foul has a three-letter abbreviation that officials use.) The situation: Arizona up 20-17. Houston ball, third-and-three at its 42. At the snap, Keenum is flushed backward, and three pass-rushers chase him: Frostee Rucker, Abraham, and Marcus Benard. Rucker dives at Keenum, who sprawls away, and then Abraham lunges at the falling Keenum (it’s not apparent that Abraham touched him), and with Keenum on the ground, Benard dives on the quarterback. No flag from Steratore.
“So,” Steratore says, “is that a late hit? He’s now down at the 16-yard line, they’re punting, they’re down 3. They just brought the house on him, he rolled away, he loses his balance. All this is going through my mind in real time.”
“Does 55 [Abraham] touch him? Okay, let me ask you this, then: Does the other player who hits Keenum [Benard] know that 55 touches him? And here’s how I officiate the play. At what point does the defensive player commit to the tackle and where is the quarterback in relation to that defender when he commits to the hit? So [Abraham] goes over, misses with his hand … “
“Is that the right call for the game to give Houston a new set of downs? And is that unfair for me to think that way? Is that egregious enough, is there bad-intent enough, in a fevered pitch, to give this team, after a 22-yard loss [actually 23], a new set of downs on a play that if we run this back, technically, there’s a foul? If we run this back, frame by frame by frame, you’re going to tell me the hit’s a second late. But is this unnecessary roughness, which is what it is by description? And do you read that much into it as an official? Do I officiate this play for the grade? Do I officiate this play for the game? I mean, what do you do for that play? Or do you not think of any of that?”
“I call nothing. This other defender, 59, had no idea that 55 touched him. And I don’t believe that this defensive player [Benard] had any bad intent on the hit. I don’t think he tried to punish this quarterback. I don’t think that he unnecessarily roughed him. I think it’s on the border and in the split second of time did not think this was a foul that warranted a UNR.”
“Now Keenum looks at me, like, ‘What the hell?’ I shook him off. I said, ‘No, no. This is a man’s game and you fell and got hit.’ ”
Coukart has looked at the same potential UNR over and over. In 12 hours, via email and then Ref 360, Steratore will find out what Coukart thinks of these two plays. There are other close plays in this game too. “Our toughest game of the year,” Steratore says. And before he can think about Game 150, Steratore and his crew have to close the book on Game 144.
Tuesday, Nov. 12, Washington, Pa. Steratore has three other part-time jobs. He and his brother Tony run the janitorial supply business, which is not a major concern during the season. He also assigns and grades officials for Division II and III football games in the western Pennsylvania area. And he is an NCAA basketball official. By 11:30 this morning he’ll be on the road, driving four-and-a-half hours for a game tonight between South Carolina State and Michigan in Ann Arbor.
This morning, he spends a couple of hours in his janitorial supply office. He comes home, packs a light bag with his basketball official’s uniform. He reviews a few more plays he knows will be under the NFL microscope.
At 10:58 a.m., Coukart’s email pops into his inbox. It directs him to check his Ref 360 for the preliminary grades.
“Let’s see what the boss says,” Steratore says, and he fires up Ref 360 with its coded play numbers and explanations from Coukart.
Steratore is transfixed and begins reading off the report from Coukart, with some commentary: “Play 229, no call for a trip. My umpire [Bill Schuster] has a no-call there. TRP … Incorrect call OPI [offensive pass interference]. Dino [Paganelli, the back judge] came down and tried to talk Jeff [Seeman, the line judge] out of making that call. Jeff stayed with it. Coukart went incorrect … Roughing the passer—they want me to call RPS here. I want to look at that one … Correct, correct, correct, correct, correct, correct, correct … Now, oh, the play we watched last night, the hit on Keenum—they want that to be unnecessary roughness.”
The only good news of the morning—Coukart agreed that the slight tug on Abraham’s jersey was not a foul—was an asterisk and only that. After Steratore finishes with Ref 360, the air is out of the room.
“Two calls,” Steratore says, trying to sound brave. “How about that? [After] two calls in 10 weeks. This doubled my calls in one week. I went from two to potentially four.”
The first play was an odd one, and unexpected. But after watching it 10 times with his son, Steratore gets the point—even if he disagrees with it. On an incompletion from Keenum to Andre Johnson, the Cards howled for intentional grounding, because Johnson had stopped running and Keenum threw the ball far away from him, with no one around. That’s where the attention was. Meanwhile, Keenum was getting spun around by one Card rusher and speared with the crown of the helmet by defensive end Matt Shaughnessy. Two of the crew rushed to Steratore to talk about grounding. As for the hit on Keenum, Steratore saw the contact but felt the crown-of-the-helmet blow was lessened by Keenum’s getting yanked away by the other pass-rusher.
And now, as he ran it again and again, it looks like Keenum would have been yanked to the ground without the Shaughnessy head-butt. No matter, though. The combo platter of the crown-of-the-helmet hit and hitting him flush when the ball was away was enough for Coukart.
“Boy,” Steratore says to his son, “that doesn’t look like a foul to me, Geno. But he wants the lowering of the helmet.”
The two Steratores look hard at the little screen. The play, ending with Shaughnessy’s helmet planted in Keenum’s sternum, runs again.
“You think it is [a foul], don’t you?” Gene Steratore says to his son.
“I don’t think it’s a foul,” Geno says, “but I think because he’s lowered then kind of sandwiched him, you’re never going to win [an appeal]. That’s going to stick.”
In today’s football referees know quarterback protection is paramount. That’s why Steratore, though he talks with great hope that maybe he can get one of the downgrades overturned on appeal, figures he’s just blown his shot at reffing Super Bowl XLVIII.
“Now I’d have to finish the year without a miss. Good luck. That’s Baltimore-Chicago, Denver-New England, Lions and Packers for the next three weeks.”
It’s quiet in the house as Steratore scurries to leave for Ann Arbor. At one point he looks up and says, “There goes the Super Bowl.” He might be right: There are 17 referees competing to be the best, as there are at each spot on the officiating field. Position by position, officials are ranked in three tiers based on their regular-season accuracy rating. Only officials in Tier 1 are eligible to work the Super Bowl; there is no minimum or maximum number of officials who can be in Tier 1, but according to Blandino there are usually between four and six.
If there are, say, four officials who qualify for Tier 1, it is not necessarily the official with the best accuracy percentage who gets the Super Bowl. Other factors—positioning, mechanics, rules expertise and decisiveness—weigh into the NFL’s decision. Last year Steratore’s back judge, Paganelli, had a rare no-downgrade season and got the call. That’s what they all aim for. There isn’t a set cut-off percentage separating the tiers because every position could have different degrees of proficiency. If five referees are at 98.0 percent or better, and the sixth is at 97.25 percent, the logical line of demarcation would be between the fifth and sixth referee that season.
There is no way for Steratore to know if he’s blown his shot or not. Four downgrades would almost certainly not be enough to knock him out of contention for the Super Bowl, but it would probably reduce his margin for error down the stretch of a tough season.
Tier 1 officials are eligible to work all postseason games. Tier 2 officials can work Wild Card and Divisional playoff games. Tier 3 officials, Blandino says, are not playoff-eligible and would be subject to a thorough offseason review and possible replacement by the league.
There’s some professional mourning here, because now Steratore thinks he’s killed his season. But as the crew chief, he has a lot more to worry about. He cannot sulk; at least none of the men on his crew can see him or hear him complaining over his evaluation, particularly when, as the representative of the league to his crew, he has to support Blandino’s credo of reffing for a great game, not for great grades. It’s notable that after 10 or 15 minutes in the house with the unmarked mailbox, obsessing over the two downgrades, Steratore begins thinking about his team. The crew had a season-high six downgrades in the Houston-Arizona game. He’ll have to tend to one bit of potential tension—Seeman and Paganelli seeing the the pass-interference call differently, and the grader agreeing with Paganelli, causing a downgrade. Steratore will hold a conference call with his six officials tonight at 9:45, and no one’s going to want to hear him whining over two downgrades that might cost him a chance at glory.
What fans might not realize (and in fact I never understood before being embedded with this crew) is that what happened last week affects how an official officiates next week. NFL officiating is a continuing education class. The fact that Steratore has been downgraded twice for hits on the quarterback will carry into Game 150, and it will affect how Steratore views hits on quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Josh McCown in Chicago. Not just because of the two downgrades—because he and the 16 other NFL referees have their antennae raised on hits to the quarterback.
On I-76 near Youngstown, Ohio Steratore got into this business because his dad was into it. His father reffed college football and basketball, and many was the weekend when the Steratore family would pile into the car and drive from western Pennsylvania to a football game at Harvard or Princeton. “I found myself watching the officials more than the players,” Gene Steratore says.
Driving over a road he knows like a long-haul trucker (he prefers driving to flying because he can set his own schedule), he considers my question about whether officials today are being asked to do the impossible in making the right calls on helmet-to-helmet hits and blows to defenseless receivers. I suggest the game’s just too fast. He thinks for a few seconds. “It’s becoming more challenging,” he says. “It requires precision at a very, very, very technical level to be ruled on correctly. We’re not asked to do the impossible, but we are being challenged to digest new ways of looking at certain things. The more you see in real time, the slower the play will start to happen in your mind, and the better you will digest it.”
His phone rings. Jerry Markbreit.
“Jerry,” Steratore says into his headset. “I want you to look at a couple of plays for me. You have time?”
Markbreit, a veteran of four Super Bowls (no man has refereed more) and eight conference title games, is 78 now. He says he’ll look at the plays and get back to Steratore. A generation ago, when Steratore was climbing the officiating ladder, Markbreit was his idol. “To have Jerry as a resource—for everything—is such a thrill, and so valuable,” Steratore says. “It’s amazing to me that I can pick up the phone and call Jerry Markbreit for advice.” How to deal with crew issues, when to fight a downgrade and when not to, all things officiating—that’s why Markbreit is so important to Steratore.
I rattle off some questions.
Q: Is it tough to put a downgrade behind you?
Steratore: “We don’t just slough it off. Unfortunately, we don’t get to play 180 games like a shortstop does. You have to observe it and look at it from an officiating standpoint rather than a grade. And you try and relive in your mind what you saw on the field. You dissect the play the way you should with or without the grade. I missed this. Why did I miss it? Was I not in the correct position? Did I not think it was severe enough to warrant a foul? Then hopefully use all of that to do what you ultimately want to do: get better and learn from it.”
Q: How about when you disagree with the grader?
Steratore: “There are gray areas, some a little more gray than others. If a play is missed, then you acknowledge the fact that you missed the play. When you have a different viewpoint, you present it professionally and openly and hope that it’s received that way.”
Q: Biggest misconception about officials?
Steratore: “That these guys just show up on Sunday, put their ball caps on, and they can’t get anything right after the play has been shown 10 times in super-slow-motion. The amount of time officials put into their craft and into their job and into their profession is vastly underrated, and the efficiency in our business is well over 97 percent. If you look at any job, and had an employee that was over 97, 98 percent in everything that he did, he would be one of your most highly valued employees in whatever company you work. In our business … you are recognized for the 2 percent wrong.”
Q: Is that fair?
Steratore: “It is fair in the sense that you are paid to get 100 percent of them right. When you make that mistake that potentially costs a team that worked thousands of hours to prepare for that play, and it was done correctly and ruled incorrectly, then you deserve to be recognized for your inefficiency. It’s part of the business.”
Q: How’d you get good at the microphone part of the job?
Steratore: “You just communicate. Don’t make it a big deal. Be confident … Funny story. Week three, preseason, my first year as a ref, 2006. Chicago. First two weeks of preseason I had replays in each game. Both were, ‘The ruling on the field stands.’ In Chicago we ruled interception. I go to replay and it’s not an interception. And I think I have this down pat. Calm and relaxed, I come out. And now I’m standing on the field. I click the mike, in the middle of Soldier Field, and said, ‘After reviewing the play, the ruling is … ’ And I just flat-lined. I blanked. Dead silence for what felt like eternity. And I said, ‘The ruling is … It’s not good.’ My crew, they killed me the whole game.”
* * *
Steratore logs a lot of miles in his officiating jobs and prefers driving so he can set his own schedule. By Saturday he’ll be in Chicago, gearing up for Game 150, Ravens at Bears. (John DePetro/The MMQB)Steratore logs a lot of miles in his officiating jobs and prefers driving so he can set his own schedule. By Saturday he’ll be in Chicago, gearing up for Game 150: Ravens at Bears. (John DePetro/The MMQB) It’s 4 in the afternoon. We’re in Toledo now. Steratore is about to drop me off and go on to the basketball game. I’m meeting the field judge on Steratore’s crew, Bob Waggoner. His other job is assistant supervisor of officials for the Big Ten and the Mid-American Conference, and tonight there’s a MAC game at the Glass Bowl in Toledo: Buffalo at Toledo. Waggoner will analyze the crew and, he hopes, help them continue to climb the officiating ladder.
Just before our highway exit, I ask Steratore about being invisible.
“If you’re in this for recognition, you picked the wrong second job or first job or hobby,” he says. “We are a necessary part of the game. We’re not a necessary evil of the game. We have a role to play, and our role is truly to not be recognized. How many times do you go to a Broadway play and say, ‘Wow, that play was directed so beautifully.’ The people who know the theater appreciate the directors. The true, true fans of theater know who wrote the show, who produced it, who directed it. Really in-depth football people know every once in a while, ‘This is so-and-so’s crew today. I like the way they officiate the game. We get the sense the game is in control when so-and-so is here.’
“For the other 99 percent, we’re just the bad guys.”
* * *
Tomorrow: If this is Wednesday, it must be Grand Rapids … or three days with crew members who moonlight, respectively, as an officiating supervisor, a high school AP History teacher and a New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development executive
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right....
December 4th, 2013, 2:59 pm
HC – Jim Caldwell
Joined: February 11th, 2005, 3:01 pm Posts: 4552 Location: WSU
Re: Game 150: A Week in the Life of an Officiating Crew
this is laughable - from the same guy that took away calvin johnsons game winning TD vs chicago. i will always think if calvin made that catch short of the goalline took those steps and jump to get across the goalline they would ve called it a TD. this happened in the MNF SEA vs NO game, SEA FB caught a deflected ball and fell into endzone as he was catching ball bringing the ball across the plane of the goalline but lost the ball when he went to the ground. Called a TD, reviewed and again called a TD. Lance Moore TD in superbowl same thing. ill never get it.
December 4th, 2013, 7:36 pm
Joined: December 31st, 2004, 9:55 am Posts: 12423
Re: Game 150: A Week in the Life of an Officiating Crew
Game 150: The Crew The men of Gene Steratore’s officiating team come from diverse walks and weekday jobs—teacher, stockbroker, housing director—but their common bond is a commitment to their craft, to each other and to getting the calls right on Sunday
In November, The MMQB was granted unprecedented access to an NFL officiating crew before, during and after the Baltimore-Chicago game on Nov. 17 at Soldier Field—dubbed Game 150 because that’s the number the NFL assigned it, out of its 256 regular-season games. Part 1 of the three-part series looked at referee Gene Steratore. Today in Part 2 we delve into the lives of the other members of the crew: umpire Bill Schuster, line judge Jeff Seeman, side judge Mike Weatherford, field judge Bob Waggoner, head linesman Wayne Mackie and back judge Dino Paganelli, with a focus on those last three. Friday: Part 3—the crew’s preparations on Saturday, and Sunday’s game.
Tuesday, Nov. 12 Glass Bowl, Toledo, Ohio It’s an Arctic night at the Glass Bowl, the football stadium on the campus of the University of Toledo. There aren’t many folks in the house wearing sportcoat and tie, but Bob Waggoner is one. Waggoner, the field judge on referee Gene Steratore’s NFL crew, is here on official business, as the assistant supervisor of officials of the Mid-American Conference, to observe referee Stan Evans’ crew for the Buffalo-Toledo game. “It gives us an opportunity to educate those who are eventually going to take our place someday,” Waggoner says.
The game is interminable—3 hours, 46 minutes; Toledo 51, Buffalo 41—but the length does afford Waggoner the chance to join the weekly NFL crew conference call. After Steratore, also a Division I basketball official, finishes his hoops game in Ann Arbor that night, he convenes his seven-man crew for the inside-officiating review of the previous week’s league grades and what the crew could do to improve in several areas, including helping others on the crew with a call if a far-flung official might have had a better view of a foul. Waggoner is a mostly silent participant, listening for about 45 minutes while watching the Bulls and Rockets slug it out from the Glass Bowl press box.
“The crew concept is the crux of what we do,” Waggoner says at halftime. “You have to have confidence in everyone on the crew. That’s how things get done correctly. The building of the trust between all the men on the crew is so important, because you have to rely on them sometimes as an extra set of eyes. The only time I really like to throw my two cents in is when I have seen a play from beginning to end and I am sure of what I saw. If there’s a disagreement on what to call, I’ll say, ‘Did you see the play from beginning to end? Because I did.’”
Waggoner has one primary critique of the officiating in the Buffalo-Toledo game: This MAC crew has to move the game along faster. The poor fans were exposed to the 23-degree wind chill for so long they left the stadium as walking blocks of ice. Waggoner enters the officials’ room after the game and first reviews several calls—such as offsetting penalties for personal fouls when it seemed clear that the Toledo player started things. “I don’t like offsetting fouls,” Waggoner says to the official who called it, who nods in understanding. “Get the instigator.”
Then he conveys his main point to Evans, the referee: Don’t wait till you place the ball down before you start the clock after stoppages; you can start the clock a few seconds before that, as soon as the ball gets in your hands. Those six or eight seconds, on 40 or so stoppages during an average game—one with undefined TV timeouts and the ridiculousness of stoppages every time a first down is gained (there were 49 tonight)—are going to add up and move things along more briskly.
“Maybe I’m old school,” says Evans, “but the way I was taught, you have to … ‘’
“Stan,” Waggoner says gently but firmly, “let me tell you about that old school. The old school is closed. There are no students there anymore. They’re in a new school now. That’s the school you’ve got to go to now.”
That’s one way NFL concepts seep down into college football. Several current and former NFL officials work as supervisors or graders for college conferences and try to import some pro ideas regarding officiating. This is Waggoner’s other job. In a typical week at his Toledo home, he’ll spend about three hours Monday watching the previous day’s NFL game; concentrate Tuesday on the plays he either erred on or was questioned about; look Wednesday and Thursday at training tapes and video of both of the upcoming NFL teams he has that weekend; work out several times (the NFL monitors its officials’ in-season weight); talk with the NFL’s field-judge adviser, an extra officiating resource who reviews the positioning and mechanics of each field judge (each position has such an adviser); and take a weekly 15-question test.
It’s all part of the weekly mosaic. “We do as much preparation as the teams do,” Waggoner says. That’s an exaggeration, of course—six of the seven guys on Steratore’s crew have jobs entirely apart from football officiating. But Waggoner, in his other job and his weekly prep, does practice football immersion most days.
Wednesday, Nov. 13 Wyoming High School, Wyoming, Mich. There have been some controversial calls in our time. Can you think of one more controversial than the Calvin Johnson didn’t-complete-the-action-of-a-catch-while-going-to-the-ground play that decided the Lions-Bears game on opening day 2010? Johnson caught what appeared to be the winning touchdown pass at Chicago, took a couple of steps while falling, used the ball to brace his fall, and the ball popped free when it contacted the ground. The back judge on the play, the man whose call it was, Dino Paganelli, ruled no catch. Upon review, the referee, Gene Steratore, upheld Paganelli’s call, and the Lions lost the game.
Paganelli returned that night to his home in Wyoming, Mich., next to Grand Rapids, two hours west of Detroit. Lions country. And the next day he headed to his job as a teacher at Wyoming High.
“Oftentimes I get more harassment from my students in phys ed class than I do from players on the field,” Paganelli says. “That Monday the students wouldn’t talk to me, they wouldn’t listen to me. They just shut down; they wouldn’t let me teach. Then you try to explain what the rule and the process is, and they’re not buying it. To this day, when I call a foul in flag football, it’s, ‘Oh, that’s the Calvin Johnson referee.’ ”
So much for home (ref) cooking. As onerous as you might find the rule in the Calvin Johnson play, if the Michigan guy doesn’t call the play the way he did, the Michigan guy would have gotten a downgrade from the league office when grades were made official three days later. A few downgrades and you won’t officiate in the playoffs. A few more and you’ll be quietly let go after the season. As one of the members of Steratore’s crew, head linesman Wayne Mackie, a New Yorker, says, “I like my job. You think I’m going to risk it by throwing flags for the Jets when I work a Jets game?” This is a subject the seven officials on the crew bring up quite often, usually shaking their heads in incredulity. “At the end of the game, most times, we don’t even know the score,’’ Mackie says.
“It’s about personal integrity,” Paganelli says, “and protecting the NFL shield.”
Now for Paganelli’s weekday job. On this day at Wyoming High, the Calvin Johnson referee—who is a phys ed and AP History teacher when not on an NFL field—has put today’s assignment on the blackboard in this middle-class ’burb. It would fit nicely in a college-frosh History 101 class.
AP History Writing Prompt Analyze the political, diplomatic and military reasons for the United States’ victory in the Revolutionary War. (Confine your response to the period 1775-1783.) * Be prepared to present your message to the group.
The students break into small study groups for the last half-hour of the period. “Challenge yourself,” Mr. Paganelli says. “Work with people you haven’t worked with in the past.” As the kids pick small teams, Paganelli walks from group to group with advice and ideas.
Big dreams among the 30 students in here. Two boys in ties sit attentively. One of the girls hopes to be admitted to Northwestern; another is leaning toward the University of Washington. When Paganelli took over the class, he found there was a great emphasis on testing. “I was told, ‘You’ve got to kill Lincoln by Thanksgiving,’ ” he says. “That’s tough. I’m not a fan of testing twice a week. I’m a fan of thinking. Kids have to learn to think.’’
Critical thinking. For a back judge it’s vital. Paganelli, who worked last year’s Super Bowl, is the last line of defense on the Steratore crew. He has to think fast on interference calls, and he has to think faster on catch/no-catch and boundary plays. He has to watch for the kinds of helmet-to-helmet hits, and hits on defenseless receivers, that have become a flashpoint in officiating in the past three years. He watches for those after he monitors the 40-second play clock (it’s his primary call if it expires), count the number of defensive players after final substitutions are made, and figure out which receiver is his in the multiple-receiver formations that dominate the game today.
It’s one of the more complicated elements of the game for an officiating crew, and one we never think about. With motion and multiple-receiver sets and backs flanked out and tight ends split wide, how do the seven men figure out who’s watching which players? Say the offense comes out with three receivers to the right and one to the left. In this case, the side judge takes the widest receiver, the head linesman the middle man and Paganelli, the back judge, takes the receiver closest to the formation. The field judge takes the lone receiver on the left.
Now, say one of the three from the right goes in motion. Once he crosses the center of the formation and relocates to the left, Paganelli would switch to the closest receiver to the formation on the referee’s side—usually the offensive right side.
Now, say the three receivers stay in a bunch to the right, either stacked or too close to figure left, right and middle in the second or two before the snap. “Then,” says Paganelli, “we let them declare as they run upfield. It’s a feel play then. The side judge will take the receiver who goes to the outside, or becomes the widest of the three. The head linesman takes the short receiver or the receiver to the flat. The back judge takes the receiver who heads upfield or becomes the third receiver if they declare their routes quick. But most of the time the back judge will take the receiver coming straight upfield.”
Now, say it’s an all-go out of a bunch formation, with all three men sprinting upfield together. Again, it has to be a feel thing: Just think, side judge on the outside receiver, head linesman the next one in, and the back judge the third one.
“That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to have crew chemistry,” says Paganelli. “There are so many things that happen suddenly, and you need to know how your partners are going to see things, so you know what your assignment is going to be.”
When Paganelli goes home from school every day, he enters a far different, far more difficult world. In 2011, his wife, Christine, died at age 40 of melanoma. The disease dragged on for a couple years, and it was torturous for Dino and her, mostly because of their three children. Now Brady is 14, Jake 13 and Katelyn 6. It’s like you’d think: Every day’s a struggle, even in the day-to-day normalcy of the family routine two-and-a-half years later. Jake wants a cell phone. Katelyn needs Dad home when she steps off the school bus just before 4. Life with three kids. On this day, Paganelli’s mother, Mary, is here to take Jake to basketball practice and to oversee Katelyn’s play date.
Paganelli has NFL homework to do at the dining room table, his NFL-issued Surface tablet set up to review some plays from Sunday and look ahead to Game 150. Before he does, I ask him about life as a single dad raising three kids.
“I’m lucky to have all the help and support I have from two families,” he says. “Without that I’d be lost. But if there came a time that I had to step away because of my family, I wouldn’t think twice about it.” The pressure on the field, he says, doesn’t compare to the pressure of raising three kids as a single parent. As he says: “Officiating isn’t pressure. Pressure is getting home at midnight Sunday from a game and making sure there’s milk in the refrigerator for breakfast for the kids, and making sure their clothes are washed and ready for the week.’’
Doorbell rings. Paganelli looks around. No one answers it. He goes to the door, and there’s a little girl. “Is Katelyn home?” she says. Paganelli lets her in, and she and Katelyn have some fun in the den while he goes back to his tablet.
My question is about the hot-button issue of today: How do you officiate the bang-bang calls in the secondary, with the emphasis on player safety? How do you see the helmet-to-helmet hits at full speed? How do you divine what is a hit on a defenseless receiver, with players moving as fast as they do?
“I’ve got a good example for you, to show you how tough it is,” he says. For this, Paganelli hits his touch screen, and here’s the Week 4 Arizona-Tampa Bay game, with the Steratore crew working. Late in the second quarter, Bucs tight end Tim Wright catches a pass up the right seam from Mike Glennon, and Cardinals safety Yeremiah Bell comes and blasts Wright in the upper torso—and maybe the head. Wright’s head snaps back. A flag comes flying in, but not from Paganelli. There’s a crew conference. Paganelli says he thinks Bell hit Wright low enough; legally. Others think differently. Line judge Jeff Seeman threw the flag, and his argument in the conference wins. Pretty understandable. From where he stood, Seeman saw the violent collision, and Wright’s head snapping back, at a high rate of speed. Steratore announces, “Personal foul, unnecessary roughness, hit on a defenseless receiver … ”
Paganelli plays it over a few times. “Here, I’m looking for the missile, because we’ve been challenged by the league to improve our recognition on plays like this. Let’s watch …” Now it runs two, three, four times. The more you see it, the more you see Bell putting his head to the side, so as not to hit Wright with it. And you see his shoulder pads nail Wright in the upper-sternum/shoulder-pad area. There doesn’t appear to be any contact with the head. The head just snaps back because of the jarring hit to the upper torso. There’s something about watching these plays over and over and over again. Steratore put it best. “Sometimes,” the ref said, “it’s like you’re watching the Zapruder film and trying to figure out what exactly happened.”
“This is not a foul,” Paganelli says. And I believe he’s right. “You see 37 uses his shoulder, not his head, and go shoulder-to-shoulder.’’
On the TV copy of the game, FOX’s Sam Rosen intones: “If there’s a mistake, they’re going to err on the side of player safety.” He’s spot on.
“I do think defensive players are getting better,” Paganelli says. “We have become much more sensitized to the hits, and we’re better at recognizing them. Defensive players are playing smarter; I’m sure of it.’’
Postscript: The league supported the call, and didn’t give a downgrade to either official, Seeman or Paganelli, because it was so close. “Support” usually means the call was technically incorrect but so close they’re not going to sanction either official.
“There’s a quote from Pat Riley that I like,” Paganelli says. “ ‘I know I’m good. I know I can get better.’ That really says a lot about our jobs.”
Yes, it does. But after three days of looking at close calls, my conclusion on the “I can get better” angle is this: It doesn’t matter how good you get. Officials are still going to miss some, or quite a few. On the play in the Bucs-Cards game, two smart officials saw it in real time, and saw it exactly differently. Earlier in the week I had watched a play with Steratore for 15 minutes before feeling convinced it wasn’t a foul—and even then Steratore wasn’t convinced he wasn’t going to get downgraded for it.
Mistakes are going to happen. And there’s precious little these guys can do about it.
Thursday, Nov. 14 New York Department of Housing Preservation & Development, Lower Manhattan Head linesman Wayne Mackie’s real-world office is maybe 12 miles from the place he works one or two weekends a year—MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. But talk about two different worlds.
To get to Mackie’s office you wade through a unsettling horde of people unhappy with some aspect of their housing, check in with security, sign in and get a badge, and pass through the X-ray machine. You ride the elevator up to 6, enter the world of Division of Neighborhood Preservation director of operations Wayne Mackie, and sit in while he gets a report from a meeting with housing officials and 80 residents of Coney Island, Brooklyn, unhappy that, 13 months after Hurricane Sandy, their places are still struggling to get up to code.
“They’re mad about Sandy recovery, and the communication, and the city’s response,” said Pam Glaser, the department’s director of public outreach and education. Seems that Glaser publicly reached out and tried to educate, but the unhappy Coney Islanders were having none of it. And now that’s hit Mackie’s desk.
“No one likes the fact that they call 311 [the number for information or help from New York City agencies] a hundred times to complain and nobody comes out to check,” Glaser reported.
Mackie’s idea: Set up another meeting in Coney Island, and this time bring heavy hitters from the relevant agencies. “We need to build some really good answers for those people,” Mackie says.
Then he’s briefed by field officer Ann Marie Mierez about the scores of lawsuits Housing Preservation and Development has outstanding for code violations by home and building owners. One building in the Bronx fixed 200 out of 261 code violations, Mackie learns. “Good thing,” Mackie says to Mierez. “They know we’d have come down with the hammer.”
In a spare moment, I switch the subject to football, asking Mackie about something two of his officiating colleagues had previously alluded to: the concentration an official needs not just when the play is in full swing, but in the moments before it, and at the snap. “The pre-snap routine is important for every official on the field,” he says. What’s Mackie’s routine? The head linesman checks to see:
1. Is the game clock running or stopped properly, depending on the situation?
2. Does the offense have 11 men? (The back judge, side judge, and field judge count the defense after final substitutions, while the umpire, referee, head linesman and line judge count the offensive players.)
3. Watch the formation to pick out the “key,” or the players he isolates on at the snap. In a three-receiver set, the head linesman has the middle man. If it’s not a pass, the head linesman’s key is the action around the offensive tackle.
4. Watch the tackle on his side of the field to make sure he’s on the line. Tackles like to cheat, especially on passing downs, and fan back a step on an angle to have a better shot at the wide pass-rusher. The way Mackie works, he’ll warn the tackle if he sees a play where he’s more than a step off the line. If that doesn’t work, he’ll go to the line coach or the head coach and send another warning. “I’ll say, ‘I warned your tackle, but he doesn’t seem to be listening,’ ” Mackie says. “That usually does the job.” Mackie’s point is that officials don’t want to throw a flag for illegal formation on a ticky-tack call, so they’ll give the tackle or team two or three warnings before throwing the flag.
5. Watch for illegal shift—when two offensive players are moving simultaneously before the snap.
6. Watch that motion man is set for at least a second before the snap.
7. Watch for chop blocks immediately upon the snap on his side of the line.
8. Watch for a false start.
(Mackie’s mother died in October, and he said he’s had to fight being distracted, particularly around the time she died. “This has been my worst year,” he says. “I’ve missed two false starts, and I’m always very good on false starts.”)
9. On play action, understand a tricky aspect of the rules that may come into play: running backs can be grabbed or tackled without the ball. So watch for play action immediately at the snap.
And then, of course, once the play is well underway, he has to watch for his keys. All seven officials have their keys, covering the 22 players on the field, depending on the formation and play call.
At 5:35, Mackie leaves work for his home in the Rosedale section of Queens, out past JFK Airport. New York life makes his commute a little different from Paganelli’s five-minute drive home from his school or Steratore’s 15-minute ride from his janitorial-supply business. Mackie’s got 27 minutes to make it out of the crowded building, walk two blocks to the Fulton Street subway station, descend in the direction of the Uptown 3 train, press into the crowded 3 train, take it four stops to Penn Station, hustle to the Long Island Rail Road tracks underneath Madison Square Garden, find the right track, hustle to the train and board. He makes it with three minutes to spare. The train home is 30 minutes. He drives the family car he’d parked on a side street near the LIRR station home and backs it in the driveway. At 6:50 he walks in the front door. That’s the life of a New York commuter: walk, subway, train, car, home. But on this night, wife Tonya makes the trip worth it: She’s made salmon teriyaki, with a dessert of chocolate cake and strawberries.
This is Mackie’s night to watch Ravens and Bears video, studying the formations they played the previous week. But before he settles down to watch, I ask him about the responsibilities of a head linesman on game day.
My favorite head linesman jobs that Mackie performs:
• When Mackie arrives at his hotel Saturday, the Chicago Marriott O’Hare, there will be a large white square box sealed with red packing tape. Mackie has to be sure the tape hasn’t been tampered with. Inside are the six “K” balls—“K” for kicking, since they’re used exclusively on special teams plays—that are FedExed from the Wilson factory in Ada, Ohio. Mackie will be sure the balls stay secure, and he loads them on the crew bus to the game on Sunday morning. Once there, two hours before the game, the Kicking Ball Coordinator—yes, there is one of those at every stadium, for every game—comes to get the balls. Somewhere in the stadium concourse he will meet representatives of both teams (equipment guys, usually), and those team reps will have 45 minutes to work in the balls (with brushes and hot towels—no form of mechanized tool to condition the ball is allowed). “Once a team had an electric sander,” Mackie says. “They can’t do that.” After 45 minutes, the six balls must be back in possession of Mackie.
• When Mackie arrives at the stadium, he customarily is handed 12 balls from each team in a large ball bag. These are the balls the teams have conditioned during the week, and will be used when their team is on offense in the game. (This week, however, the Bears and Ravens will each be instructed to provide 24 conditioned balls, because of the threat of terrible weather and a potentially muddy field.) When Mackie gets the balls, he must check the air pressure in each one with an air-pressure gauge he carries; each must be inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. If they’re off, the back judge and field judge will take the bad balls into the bathroom and adjust the inflation with an electric pump in the sink area. Once all the balls are properly inflated, field judge Bob Waggoner will write an “L” with a silver sharpie beneath the gold shield on each football, to signify these are the official game balls for that day, so none can be confused with other footballs on the sidelines. Only “L”-labeled balls will be used in the game. Why “L?” It’s Steratore’s nod to his fiancée, Lisa Mauro. Other crews have different ways of adorning the balls uniquely. Walt Coleman, a sixth-generation dairy farmer from Arkansas, stamps the ball with the likeness of a cow.
• The head linesman and the side judge meet the visiting coach 90 minutes before the game. Mackie will tell the coach the exact time, and they will synchronize watches if the coach wishes. Mackie will take out his note card for the coach meeting. He will fill in these blanks:
Team: ______ Coach: ______ Kickoff at: ______ Field Captains: Offense______ Defense ______ ST (special teams) ______ Toss Captains: ________________ R/L: (right- or left-handed or -footed) QB______ P______ K______ Red Flag: (who will hold the challenge flag)______ Get Back Coach: (in charge of keeping the six-foot-white sideline stripe clear) ______ 2-Min Warning: (exact time of two minutes before the game) ______ Leave Locker Room at: (Time visiting team comes on the field) ______ National Anthem at: (Time of anthem) ______ Coin toss at: ______ Special plays/situations: (a coach might tell the crew when to watch for a trick play) __________
“The last thing I say, usually, is, ‘Coach, anything else you want us to watch for?’ ” Mackie says. “And they might give us something they’ve seen the other team do, like something on the edge, or illegal.”
Then Mackie settles down to scout, attaching his league-issued computer to the big-screen TV in his living room to watch the Ravens and Bears. He watches especially for multiple-receiver sets, because the way the games is played today, different formations require different keys for the officials, and he wants to have a head start on what he might see from the Bears and Ravens. On a day when slippery landlords and Hurricane Sandy victims occupied his afternoon, his evening will be football. A play comes up from four days earlier—Calvin Johnson abusing the Bears secondary—and for a second Mackie sounds like a fan.
“Damn, Calvin Johnson is a beast! What a player.”
Like the other men on Steratore’s crew, Mackie had been on the conference call the previous night, reviewing the league’s evaluation of their officiating in the Cardinals-Texans game the previous Sunday. Six downgrades—their worst performance of the season.
Game 150 is three days away. Three days until Steratore’s seven get a chance to wash away the bad taste from Arizona.
* * *
Tomorrow: Part 3—a Saturday meeting in advance of Ravens-Bears, the crew’s weekly dinner, and, finally, Game Day.
Re: Game 150: A Week in the Life of an Officiating Crew
Game 150: The Test For the men of Gene Steratore’s crew, Ravens vs. Bears in Week 11 offered a chance at redemption for their worst performance of the season. An overtime game, played in crazy Chicago conditions, challenged their preparation, their judgment and their teamwork. Would they make the grade?
In November, The MMQB was granted unprecedented access to an NFL officiating crew before, during and after the Ravens-Bears game Nov. 17 at Soldier Field—dubbed Game 150 because that’s the number the NFL assigned it, out of its 256 regular-season games. Part 1 of the three-part series looked at referee Gene Steratore. Part 2 detailed the lives of the seven-man crew. Today, we examine the pre-game rituals, and an unusual Game 150 in stormy Illinois.
Saturday, Nov. 16 Marriott O’Hare, Chicago At 3:30 p.m., in the tidy 338-square-foot Dearborn Room on the meeting level of this little city of a hotel, 10 NFL employees gather around a large rectangular table. A big screen is on the far wall. Gene Steratore, the referee and leader of the crew for Sunday’s Ravens-Bears game at Soldier Field, is at the head of the table on the right side, and NFL officiating supervisor Gary Slaughter—who will grade the crew’s seven officials on their performance—is at the head on the left. Around the table, clockwise from Steratore: side judge Mike Weatherford, umpire Bill Schuster, replay official Paul Weidner, replay assistant Brian Dipinto, field judge Bob Waggoner, line judge Jeff Seeman, back judge Dino Paganelli and head linesman Wayne Mackie.
I am the interloper, having never sat in on one of these. (Obviously: The NFL customarily keeps all officiating matters behind an iron curtain of secrecy.) So how would I have any idea what the feeling in the room normally is? I wouldn’t.
But there seems to be some tightness in this group. Some nerves. One of the first things Steratore says to the room when everyone’s seated is, “Guys, very big game tomorrow.” In part, the previous Sunday in Arizona is why. The crew had its worst day of the year by far: six downgrades upon post-game NFL review for the Texans-Cards game, including two for Steratore, who’d been having a very good year. In NFL parlance, “downgrade” equals “significant error,” and Steratore was glum when he got the news Tuesday. “There goes the Super Bowl,” he’d said. So the Baltimore-Chicago game, for this crew, is a crucial one. The seven field officials have to get back on track, or they risk being left out of the precious high-profile postseason assignments.
Even when Schuster, the gruff resident needler, hears the shirt choice for Sunday’s game—Schuster always prefers short sleeves—and throws in his two cents, the mood doesn’t lighten much.
“We’ll be in long sleeves tomorrow,” says Steratore. “We’re gonna have some weather out there.”
“Unbelievable,” Schuster says, shaking his head. “Why? Can we vote? What’s it called when everyone has a vote?”
“A democracy,” says Seeman.
“We’re a democracy run by a dictator,” Schuster grumbles.
What got the crew—particularly Steratore—in trouble last week were a couple bad calls on unnecessary roughness (UNR in ref parlance). Steratore chose not to flag two hits on Houston quarterback Case Keenum that the league felt should have been flagged. And so early in this meeting, when Slaughter has the floor, he says in his Texas accent, “Guys, the biggest thing on our radar is UNR. Roughing the quarterback, stay after those. Remember, we want you to err on the side of safety.”
The group watches a tape of plays sent to all crews by NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, who narrates. Blandino shows a good no-call on what was close to a helmet-to-helmet hit, and he illustrates a good referee announcement after another play. Standard stuff for the Steratore crew. Then Steratore shows about 20 plays of the Ravens and Bears, with elements he wants each official to watch for on Sunday. Specifically, they go over positioning. For 23 minutes the tape rolls, and they’re speaking a foreign language, starting with the mechanics of how to officiate a Baltimore running play on which Ray Rice sharply cuts back up the middle. Steratore: “On a normal scenario, if this is a run, Flacco’s handing this off to Rice or whoever it is. So, this is our POA [point of attack] right here. Which takes me to 73 [right guard Marshal Yanda], thinking about a POA seal. Shoe [Schuster] is also working inside out, so he doesn’t get out on this at all. He’s not really looking to that action. This is not a sweep look.”
Schuster: “Ray Rice cuts it—he’s not playing a lot right now—but that back’s gonna cut right back where the guard-center is. They’re famous for that cutback right at that hash.”
Steratore: “So you know you’re gonna hold now more on this tight end, which is gonna free me to go work 74/73 [right tackle Michael Oher and Yanda] on the back side. Wayne, you’re holding your guy now.”
Schuster: “Now all of the sudden, when I read that, now I have to re-change my keys, and now I’ll pick up that back guard.”
To translate: When quarterback Joe Flacco has a stretch play—either running or play-action—to the left that cuts back quickly up the guard-center gap, assignments are malleable. On a pass, Steratore immediately has both tackles and the quarterback to watch; Schuster would have the three interior offensive linemen. But if Rice takes the handoff, Steratore transitions to cover the right guard and right tackle; Schuster takes the center and left guard. Head linesman Wayne Mackie stays with the tight end in either scenario.
Confused? You’ll never last in this job if you can’t quickly transition from the possibility of a run to play-action pass.
Think of all the motioning and changing of positions on an average play, and remember that each of the 22 players theoretically should be covered by one of the seven field officials at all times. That’s why Steratore and Schuster are trying to get their assignments straight here. They think they’ll see this play tomorrow, perhaps a few times.
Now, Steratore shares a few words about on-field conferences among members of the crew. “They’re good,” he says, “and I want you to have ’em. You know I’m not gonna be in your conversation. You come to a resolution. I’m gonna give you four, five seconds, and then you tell me the call. Have a conviction, and tell me.”
When Steratore was watching Bears tape on Tuesday, he spotted an illegal play by Chicago tight end Martellus Bennett. Steratore highlights it now on tape. On the play, Bennett hooks his left arm into the midsection of Lions defensive end Willie Young. Because Bennett is well-shielded by players on either side of him, it’s hard to see the left arm holding Young from rushing, and twisting him around. Very crafty.
“Look at 83,” Steratore says of Bennett. “Savvy. Very savvy. He does this too good. Tomorrow, any action similar to that is a hold. Got that? If we see it, it’s a hold.”
After an hour and a half the meeting winds down. Steratore goes over the schedule for the night and for Sunday: Meet in the lobby at 6 p.m. to walk over to Gino’s East for deep dish pizza; Devotional back in this room Sunday at 7:30 a.m., breakfast available at 7:45, van to the game at 9 for the noon Central start.
Now Steratore wants to set the tone for the game, the same way a head coach tries to do in his Saturday meetings. Listening to Steratore—the tone, the enthusiasm, the seriousness—you might mistake him for a coach. He sounds just like one, standing in front of the crew, moving his gaze from one set of eyes to the other during his seven-minute pep talk:
“We had a good talk on Tuesday, and the good talk on Tuesday leads to one thing and one thing only, and that’s just communicating on this field in all aspects. From pregame, to follows on the field, to plays that we’re talking about. One thing we can’t do—we can’t [just] officiate in our area and stay in our area, and start working as individuals. We never have, and we’re not going to start. Okay?
“Continue to be the kind of official that puts you in the room [among other NFL officials]. That’s a good official … It’s how we work the season as a crew, because that’s where we get our measure of success and satisfaction through the end of the year—no matter what we do in the postseason. Postseason’s irrelevant. Let them handle that in New York. That’s their job. Our job is to handle 15 very difficult football games in a very short window of time. Get mentally prepared—Wednesday finishes the week before—and get your head focused on the next task at hand. That’s a challenge that we all have gone through.
“You guys have lived this every week. It’s no different. The games just get bigger, and the games get harder, and this game is a hard game. Both of these teams … can go from being out of the playoffs to winning their division. So that’s how much is at stake tomorrow. That’s the time of year that we’re in. They’re both aggressive teams. Extremely aggressive teams. Their mark is that they kick people’s asses. Knowing that up front, stop the progress—get the whistles. Set the tone for the game. Talk to these players and get them in and out of stuff. It’s big-boy stuff. Work it the way that we’ve always worked it. We’re back into that rhythm and take care of that business.
“The quarterback this week for Chicago played, what, the last half of the last quarter? He’s not a bad quarterback. Josh McCown can play. These guys got a pretty good offensive line. They’ve got a big wideout with Brandon Marshall; two tight ends a lot of times as well. So they come in with the big set. They come in to kick your rectum. Baltimore is struggling like hell to run the football, but I don’t think for one second that they’re gonna throw the ball 54 times tomorrow. They’re gonna keep trying to run the football, okay? So it’s physical football. It’s tough football. They’re coached by two good guys. Communicate with these guys. Get close to those coaches in replay, and walk them through the replay. What we’re looking at, what I come out with—it’s important that what I give to Wags [Waggoner] outside the curtain gets moved to those coaches. I’m not one to sit there to wait for the magic of the microphone. I want him to know what the hell is going on before everybody else knows, so he knows what we’re doing on the field.
“We’ve got to increase our level of communication. Keep trusting each other. Keep working your area, and then go ahead and expand your area …
“Have faith in each other and confidence in each other, and just get the thing moving forward again, alright? Everybody in here is Super Bowl-caliber people. All of you. But you’ve all been around long enough to know the business. So just work the game.
“When it comes down to it, all of this stuff for seven days comes down to the beauty of it—12 o’clock Central time tomorrow we get three hours and ten minutes to do what the hell we do …
“Everybody keep doing what you’re doing. We’re having a very great year as a crew. What happens to you all individually happens to you all individually. That’s your business at the end of the day. That’s not where I’m going with this. Come February, I’m happy that the crew finished and had another great season. We’ve got a bunch of big football games on the horizon. This one is a big one tomorrow. Big f—— game tomorrow. Alright? Let’s put this thing right back on track—not that it fell off—but this crew doesn’t sit and talk about four or five downgrades a week.”
Steratore hangs around to watch a few more plays after the rest of the officials leave. He knows it’s a good crew—he wasn’t just blowing smoke. It’s no accident that this crew is assigned to the Denver-New England [Peyton Manning-Tom Brady] game—the third straight Manning-Brady game the Steratore crew has had—or to the Detroit-Green Bay Thanksgiving Day game. This is a well-respected crew. Steratore wants them to be confident Sunday. What he said at the end was right: He thinks the crew has to get back on track after an uncharacteristically shaky game. If it doesn’t, most if not all of them will be home in January. Just as the Bears and Ravens are driving for the playoffs when they play tomorrow, so too are the seven men on this officiating crew.
At dinner, there’s a bottle of wine on the table. The only drinkers are the three civilians—the two representatives of The MMQB, and Steratore’s fiancée, Lisa Mauro, who has made the trip from western Pennsylvania. “Rubbing it in, aren’t you?” Schuster says. The officials cannot drink the day before a game. They are about the only ones in this Chicago pizza bistro who aren’t consuming something alcoholic.
I sit next to Mike Weatherford, the quiet member of the crew. He made what I thought was a very good call in the Houston-Arizona game, a bang-bang touchdown call for Andre Johnson inches from the right boundary stripe. On tape, you see Weatherford staring at the play with bent knees, processing it for half a second, and shooting his arms up in the air. The Cards howled, saying Johnson was out of bounds. But Weatherford turned out to be right on review. “The mechanics of a play like that are feet and then the catch,” he says, meaning see if the feet are in first, then check to see if the receiver has possession. But this one happened way too fast. “You really have to make that call by feel. You have to trust your instincts, that you’ve seen that play so many times.”
Then we discuss something important to Weatherford: He’s the league’s only Native American official, and the only Native American to have worked a Super Bowl (Green Bay-Pittsburgh three years ago). He’s from the Chickasaw tribe in Oklahoma. He tells me his ancestors were run out of Mississippi on the Trail of Tears—the ethnic cleansing of American Indians in the South 180 years ago—and said that for years being Native American wasn’t a point of pride. “There were Native Americans who scrubbed their faces, trying to look more white,” he said. So doing the Super Bowl was a proud moment not only for his family, but also the 40,000 Chickasaws.
“Officiating in the NFL for me is a dream come true,” he said. “It’s a dream that’s still coming true.”
* * * Rising at 6:30 a.m. in his Marriott room, Steratore gets the iron and ironing board out of the closet. As he’s done before every NFL game he’s officiated, Steratore irons the dress shirt he’ll wear to and from the stadium. Call it a superstition, or call it vanity—Steratore just wants to look his best.
At 7:30, in the same room inside the Marriott where the Saturday meeting was held, Wayne Mackie begins the weekly devotional, with Steratore, Waggoner, Weatherford and Seeman present. Replay official Mark Burns—not on this crew—writes the Christian message each week, and Mackie usually uses it. “God’s way to mental toughness” is today’s message, and for about 20 minutes Mackie imparts the message. Reading from 2 Corinthians, he says: “ … We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” Burns’ message, delivered through Mackie: In the officiating life, it’s good to embrace pressure, and thrive on the pressure of competition. Anxiety is inevitable in the arena; you can cope with it through your own Christian mental toughness.
The well-dressed crew—most in sport coats and ties—board the van at 8:55. Coughlin time. “Windy day in the windy city,” Steratore says. “The weather’s really going to be a factor here. We could get a lightning delay, and that would be a huge concern for TV. That just adds to what’s going to be a tough, tough football game to officiate.”
The van pulls into a private drive next to Soldier Field. The day is dank, threatening, windy. Weather’s coming. Getting off the van, they encounter modern stadium security. They put their bags down in a straight line, and a black lab, a bomb-sniffer, has a go at the bags. At 10:20, Steratore will meet with local police, fire and federal agents to be briefed on whether there are any local security threats today, a meeting that’s verboten to write about or for outsiders to attend. And when the officials arrive in their locker room at 9:40, all the little things must get done.
“Thumb drives!” Paganelli says. “Give me your thumb drives.” The back judge is responsible for plugging all the thumb drives into a device that records the game in real time so each official can watch it on his flight home that night. For now, FOX News Sunday is on the TV, but that’ll change by noon.
The Kicking Ball Coordinator (every game has one) walks in and sees Mackie. “Got the ‘K’ balls?” he says, and Mackie hands him the six balls that one team rep from both Baltimore and Chicago will be able to condition for the next 45 minutes; the proviso is they’re only allowed to use brushes, towels and water to get the sheen and wax and new-football feel off for the game.
“Got the game balls yet?” Mackie says to the locker-room attendant, and as if on cue an orange bag of 24 game balls arrives from a Bears equipment man. Minutes later the Ravens’ bag of 24 shows up. Usually it’s 12 per team, but with the threat of bad weather each team conditioned 24 balls during the week—the Chicago balls will be used when the Bears are on offense, Baltimore’s when the Ravens have the ball—and now Mackie, Waggoner and Paganelli go to work to get the balls prepared. One by one, as if on an assembly line, Mackie checks with a pressure gauge to see if the balls are filled to 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch of pressure. Those that aren’t get taken to the bathroom. There Paganelli uses an electric pump to fill up the balls, Mackie checks the pressure, and Waggoner puts the good ones in the sink, until all are perfect. Then Waggoner marks each by silver Sharpie with an “L” below the NFL shield, Steratore’s branding of each ball so they’re not confused with other balls found on the sidelines. The “L” is in honor of Steratore’s fiancée.
In another side of the room, Schuster chews on a red Twizzler while filling out a form for each team: Before the first half, he’ll be checking a randomly picked group of players for slippery substances, and he’ll do the same with a different group at halftime. He puts the numbers of the players he’ll be patting down on his “Player Uniform Foreign Substance” card. He says it’s been about 10 years since a player has been caught with silicone on the jersey.
Outside the locker room at 10:18, Waggoner meets the three ballboys for the game. “We’ll have weather today, so be prepared to change balls every play, okay?” One replies: “Yes sir.”
The six ‘K’ balls return at 10:28. “I’ve never had to use six,” says Mackie. “Even on a wet day like this, we’ll probably only get to four.”
Ninety minutes before the game, two officials meet with Bears coach Marc Trestman, two others with Ravens coach John Harbaugh. They synchronize watches for precise time, ask about any special plays the teams plan to run (none on either side), ask for the identity of the Get Back coach (the one who will keep the six-foot-wide white sideline stripe clear), and ask about any concerns they’ve noticed on film from the other team.
Special-teams coaches notably are pesky about what they’ve seen on tape, but today, it’s nothing on tape that bothers them. “Hey See-dog,” Schuster says to Jeff Seeman when he’s returned from his mission to see coaches. “The Baltimore special-teams coach, Jerry Rosburg, just said, ‘Manage the weather conditions.’ ” They get a good laugh out of that.
On the field before the game, Steratore meets Trestman, who’s in his first NFL head coaching stint, for the first time. “Look forward to working with you many years, coach,” Steratore says. When the players leave the field, Steratore does a mike check. “Testing, referee’s mike check,” Steratore says. “Testing 1-2-3. Lisa, Lisa, 1-2-3.”
On his way back into the locker room, Steratore looks worried. Game 150 is 26 minutes away, and the sky is like something from The Wizard of Oz just before the house is swept away. “They say there could be 70- mile-an-hour winds in a while,’’ Steratore says. “This could be a wild one.”
* * * For this crew, four plays in the first six minutes show there will be no Arizona hangover.
Play 6. On a Baltimore punt return, Tandon Doss fumbles while going to the ground. The Bears’ Sherrick McManis picks it up and runs it in for a touchdown. But back at the spot of the fumble, field judge Bob Waggoner is signaling Doss was down. He tells Steratore that Doss’s right knee was on the ground as the ball came loose. The Bears, seeing the replay upstairs, decide not to challenge. Good no-challenge. Would have been fruitless. “The ruling on the field is the runner was down by contact,” Steratore announces. “First down Baltimore.” BOOOOOOOO.
Play 8. Baltimore ball. Stretch play. Run or play-action? Steratore is positioned 12 yards behind the right wide receiver. Schuster is positioned 13 yards behind the left tackle. Here is the precise play they drilled for yesterday. Could be a run or pass. Flacco hands it to Rice, who cuts back toward the left guard. From his vantage point, Steratore now stares at the right guard and tackle, and sees a momentary hook by right guard Yanda on the defensive tackle—but Yanda releases him almost as soon as he is into him; no foul. Schuster, looking at his three offensive linemen in the middle, sees center Geno Gradkowski maul defensive tackle Stephen Paea to the ground. Clean block. No hold. Rice gains 47, cleanly.
Play 10. Flacco throws for the end zone to tight end Ed Dickson on a ball that might be uncatchable. Safety Chris Conte bearhugs Dickson a full second before the ball arrives. Paganelli, watching from the end line, has the yellow flag in his right hand and throws it. Immediately he motions for pass interference and points to Conte. For this he had to rule not only that Dickson—who actually caught the pass on the end line—was interfered with, but that the ball could have been caught in bounds if he hadn’t been interfered with. On replay, it’s clear Paganelli made the right call.
Play 15. A challenge—and one that’s tougher than it looks. Josh McCown throws a short pass to Alshon Jeffery. As Jeffery turns upfield and is tackled, the ball slips out, and the Ravens jump on it. It’s very close as to whether the ball comes out when he is down, or just before—and whether Jeffery completes the act of the catch. Line judge Jeff Seeman immediately runs in and rules catch and down by contact. John Harbaugh throws the red challenge flag.
Steratore, walking to the sideline, wants to make one thing clear to Harbaugh on this rare play. “John, you can’t end up with the ball here,” he tells the Ravens’ coach. “You can have an incomplete pass, but on a ruling of down by contact, the fumble is not a reviewable play.” But Harbaugh tells him he simply wants to challenge the ruling of a completed pass.
* * * This is as good a time as any in a long story about officiating to talk about the review process.
First, Steratore makes the announcement that the Ravens are challenging the ruling on the field of a completed pass. Then he “punches out for commercial,” meaning with two balled-up fists he punches the air to the side, signaling the TV crew (CBS in this case) to go to a break. Meanwhile, the replay assistant and replay official are gathering the television angles seen by however many cameras are working that game. When Steratore, accompanied by Waggoner, reaches the replay booth behind the Bears’ sideline, he puts his headset on and says to replay official Paul Weidner, “Pauly, you have any good angles for me to see?” Weidner does, and—here’s another ref phrase—he “dumps the bucket” of all the plays he has for Steratore. Once Steratore goes inside the curtains in the portable booth and the screen turns on, a timer begins to run: 60, 59, 58, 57 … . At zero the screen will automatically go black.
From the touch screen, Steratore can choose whichever angle in the bucket he thinks will help. On this play, the first shot is the main live broadcast feed, which Steratore finds inconclusive. The second, a low end zone shot from behind the Chicago offense, suggests that Jeffery lost the ball before it was a catch. Steratore needs more. On the third shot, low from the Chicago sideline, he sees this: Jeffery turned upfield and began to make the football act, in this case to run with the ball, but almost immediately the ball started to come loose. Steratore now is certain the receiver didn’t have the ball long enough for a completed catch.
That determination took about 40 seconds. Now he has to return to the first replay, to confirm which hashmark and yard line the ball was originally on and to get the exact time on the clock when the incompletion happened.
Steratore emerges from the booth, tells Waggoner the ball should be at the Chicago 23, at the near hashmark, and that the clock should be reset to 9:17. Two officials inform each coach, while Steratore goes to the field, waits for the signal from the sideline TV crewman, presses the microphone button on his belt, and announces: “After review, the ruling is an incomplete pass. The receiver did not maintain possession through the process of the catch. The ball is incomplete. It will be Chicago’s ball, third down and seven from the 23-yard line. The ball will placed in the middle of the field. Baltimore will not be charged with a timeout. Will the game clock operator please reset the game clock to 9 minutes, 17 seconds, 9:17 on the game clock please.”
A bit wordy—Steratore didn’t need to give the incomplete notice, nor the time on the clock, twice. But he got the call right. He corrected a bang-bang decision that was clearly in error. That’s what replay is for.
* * * A long Baltimore series later, the skies turn black, the wind whips up, the radar indicates violent weather 25 miles to the west, and, after the league offices in New York consult with meteorologists and Bears officials, play is halted. The crowd is told to clear the stands and head to the protected concourses. The officials retreat to their locker room. There they discuss the situation with Slaughter, their supervisor, and watch the local TV news reports on the severe weather, including tornadoes throughout Illinois. They talk to Blandino in New York, and to the coaches of both teams. “Nothing to do but wait,” Steratore says.
After an hour and 53 minutes, once the weather clears, the teams and officials return to the field, the fans return to their seats, and the game resumes.
There are three borderline plays the rest of the way.
One: With 5:51 left in the first half, Flacco scrambles for a first down, slides, and is hit by Julius Peppers. Steratore throws the flag. Unnecessary roughness on a sliding quarterback who’d given himself up. Peppers immediately throws his hands in the air as if to say, “You gotta be kidding me!” Borderline, maybe—but Steratore was whacked by the league for two non-calls on hits on the quarterback in last week’s game, and it’s folly to think he won’t be extra-sensitive in this game.
Steratore rarely explains penalties right away to steaming players, because he knows they’re not ready to hear it. So he waits until the Bears take a timeout with 1:07 left in the half and approaches Peppers, whom he likes and respects.
“Look, Julius, if that play happened in my backyard, I’m not calling it,” Steratore tells the three-time All-Pro. “But I get graded too. Just like you.”
“I understand,” Peppers says.
Two: Steratore calls a marginal horse-collar tackle in the second half, from about 25 yards away. The grab of the shirt was high but more from the side than back. It’s a call that will be examined closely by New York three days later.
And three: Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil shoves McCown down with two hands a second after McCown releases a pass. Not a violent, hard shove, but Dumervil does hit him, and the quarterback falls, and the Ravens go nuts when Steratore throws the flag. When the grousing continues, Terrell Suggs speaks up. “That’s it! It’s over.” Taking over for Ray Lewis, Steratore thinks.
* * * After torrential rain and strong winds and then none of either, and then bone-chilling cold, of course the game goes to overtime. It finally finishes five hours and 16 minutes after kickoff, and the men of the third team on the field trudge up the tunnel, their shoes three times their original weight, from the mud.
When they reach the locker room, Steratore gets on the phone with Blandino, calling from New York. “Dean,” Steratore says, “the divots were coming up huge. That was a tough, tough game. Shoe pulled his hammy.” Indeed, Schuster walked into the locker room limping slightly from a slip and slide in the second half.
“Guys,” Steratore says, “I just want to tell you: You did a great job today. You did right by the game. You busted your rectum, you stayed focused, and you did a great job.”
“I came in to break up a little scrum at one point,” says the reed-thin Paganelli, “and the wind almost blew me over.”
“I loved it out there,” says Schuster. “Mud and glory. Classic football. Like what John Madden said: ‘Nice to get back to real football for a change.’ From hash to hash, nothing but loose divots. They were coming up like briefcases.”
“We weren’t the story,” says Steratore. “That’s the best thing.”
Now they’re hustling for quick showers and the airport; the violent weather made a mockery of the field, and of the officials’ travel itineraries. As much as they’d like to take a few deep breaths and relive an unforgettable Game 150, they mostly want to get to the airport. The Paganelli kids have school in the morning, for one thing. Dad has to get home.
But first …
“Hey,” says Schuster, “what was the final?”
“It was 23-20,” Steratore says. “Chicago.”
* * *
Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right....
December 11th, 2013, 11:38 am
Joined: December 31st, 2004, 9:55 am Posts: 12423
Re: Game 150: A Week in the Life of an Officiating Crew
Tuesday, Nov. 19, Washington, Pa.
The email from Gary Slaughter arrives in Steratore’s inbox at 2 p.m. Steratore calls up the Ref360 program and finds Game 150.
Moment of truth.
Zero. Slaughter, the grader, praises the crew for keeping its focus in terrible conditions. Steratore is euphoric.
There are two “support-only” calls, meaning the grader might disagree but acknowledges that there was sufficient reason for the call. Both are from Steratore. The flag on Peppers is one that Slaughter wouldn’t have thrown, and the horse-collar tackle is close but Slaughter doesn’t like that one either. In the league’s officiating command center the next day, however, Blandino says he understands why Steratore threw both flags, erring on the side of safety, and wouldn’t mark him down for either. “The crew had a great game in Chicago,” Blandino says. “A lot of tight stuff throughout the game, and a lot of good calls. I thought it was a great bounce-back week.”
Even amid the joy of the Grade-A game, the Pepper call troubles Steratore. If I don’t get downgraded last week for those plays in Arizona, would I throw the flag on Peppers? After beating himself up over it for a while, he thinks to himself that he’d still be decisive, grades be damned.
That’s what Blandino wants—officials who don’t think of grades, but rather of the right calls. Even when the right calls are as gray as the Chicago sky was for most of the game Sunday. Not shades of gray. Dark, pure, perfect gray.
“Damn it,” Steratore says this night, “I know what a penalty is.”
* * * On that week’s conference call, Steratore tells his crew: “That’s the most unusual game we’ll ever work. It’s our first zero of the year. That’s an incredible job. To hang in there for five and a half hours, tornadoes in the area, all the wind, the ran, the mud, horrible conditions …
“We are right back where we want to be. This thing ain’t broke.”