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.
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