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.