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.