Jeff Haynes for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB
Jeff Haynes for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

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. 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.

Waggoner meeting with the MAC officials he oversees before the Buffalo-Toledo game. (John DePetro/The MMQB)
Bob Waggoner meets with the MAC officials he oversees before the Buffalo-Toledo game, two days after working Texans-Cardinals in Arizona. (John DePetro/The MMQB)

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.

Bob Waggoner


Field Judge


Age: 62  Home: Toledo, Ohio.   Years as NFL official: 17.  Outside job: Assistant supervisor of officials, Big Ten Conference, Mid-American Conference.  Crew role: Elder statesman, historian.  Personality: Flatline officiating lifer. Good complimentary partner to Steratore.

 

Q: How difficult is it to process information on the field in real time?  Waggoner: “The average play is five to seven seconds long. In that time each official is making up to 20 decisions, and then the play goes up on the Jumbotron for everyone to see. Technology has certainly advanced the scrutiny. But it’s what we signed up for. When you put the shield on, you hold yourself to a higher standard. I think you should.”

 

“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.

The Buffalo-Toledo game dragged to nearly four hours in frigid temps; Waggoner’s advice to the crew was to speed up the pace. (Scott W. Grau/Icon SMI)
The Buffalo-Toledo game dragged to nearly four hours in frigid temps; Waggoner, one of a number of NFL officials who supervise at the college level, advised the crew to speed up the pace. (Scott W. Grau/Icon SMI)

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.

* * *

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59 comments
mschu74
mschu74

guys my dad is Bill Schuster

surfphillips
surfphillips

What a pile of crap.  This guy blew the final call on Miami Pittsburg a few years ago.  (Mr upon further review, the quarterback did fumble but I didnt see who recovered. the ball.)  This guy is a joke and a disgrace to good referee's everywhere

JohnFerguson
JohnFerguson

The best writing that Peter King has done in a long time. The juices must have been flowing on this story. The NFL was wise to let the fans have a "behind the scenes" look at officiating. Nicely done Mr. King. 

MatthiasGiese
MatthiasGiese

Be that as it may I watched football today and saw another collection of horrible, horrible calls (not just my impression, those of the commentators). Some of them were game deciding. I´m sorry. I´ve loved American Football for almost thirty years, my son plays flag, I have really believed in the game but this is quickly becoming untenable. We have a Game Pass, but I don´t think we´ll be back next season. The wonderful game of American Football is self destructing. 

chetjohnson
chetjohnson

Peter King use to be a fantastic and brilliant writer.  Reading MMQB on Monday's was always a must and a joy to read.  Then he drank the "it's all about me" and I'm a TV star Kool-Aid and the MMQB became more about him and his varied social opinions than about the NFL.  I now read only bits and pieces of what he writes but was very interested when I saw the promos for Game 150.  I sat down this morning to read this feature article and was reminded again of what a thought provoking and brilliant writer Peter King still is.  I know there are many people like myself who have quit reading Peter King for some or even different reasons than I did.  That said, I would encourage everyone to read Game 150.  Thank you Peter for the rare insight, it was a great and educational read. 

Fred24
Fred24

Peter: I am not fan of yours, because oftentimes you pander to what is presently trendy, and certainly no fan of NFL officiating that is for sure, which I find a death knell to the integrity of the NFL because if it is so chancy and unpredictable that the NFL is now a 'game show of chance' not one of rewarding effort and/or excellence.It has enough of a luck factor as is; i.e. injuries. Nonetheless, I found your piece a very good read and enlightening.


Here is two new ways of ~thinking~ the NFL must do to raise the level of officiating:

1. IF in doubt ~DON'T~ throw that flag. Most are now operating under the opposite mantra - again if not sure then don't throw a flag.

2. NO rule should be enacted, no matter how well-intended,  that is so chancy and difficult to apply that it will directly lead to inconsistent in application. Why? Because it will directly lead to influencing the outcome of the game, especially now when the talent among teams is so even and thus the games so tight. The NFL season is ~only~ 16 games, the 'breaks or the damage' done by incorrect or inconsistency of officiating do not have a mathematical chance to 'even' out by virtue of such a few games ~within~ a single season.

Also, technology is now five times more advanced then before, and it never lies, then why not use it - at all times.


The problem is one of intellectual adjustment (evolution) to a new reality, not that human error be eliminated,or lessen. It can't.

James Kempner
James Kempner

Congratulations. This is a terrific piece and goes a long way to make their job more understandable. (I've only read the 1st 2 parts so far) Nevertheless I think the NFL needs to improve the officiating. If a fan can see a bad call or non-call on their TV why can't the NFL? Because they don't have an 8th official watching TV like a fan?

.

Poch_DLR
Poch_DLR

I'm a sports writer myself and I'd like to commend Mr. King on this great article knowing how much work it takes to have written it.

Would you please be able to feature Ed Hochuli? Many fans would love that!

Willmac7496
Willmac7496

I didn't think I'd be interested but once I started reading I had to read the whole thing.   Very well written and interesting, and some of these guys have really hard lives during the week too

DennyCrane
DennyCrane

Ooh, "embedded" with the refs; why that's almost like being "embedded" with a real military unit in a real theater of war where the correspondent is exposed to the same level of hazards as the unit they're with. Why Peter, that sounds so dangerous and heroic.

I'm more interested in the referring screw ups like the failure to flag Tomlin of the inability for the crew to get 3rd down or 1st down like the Redskins experienced in their final drive. I'd rather know what the league is going to do about that and how they're going to put some integrity into the officiating. These are major screw ups and heads should roll but all we hear is "mistakes were made".

Next time Peter, pick a topic which is significant and newsworthy instead of some fluff piece for the league. Why it's almost as if they planned this article to hide their ghastly attempts at officiating at a professional level.

badcyclist1
badcyclist1

Great article so far.  You could not pay me enough to do their job, though.

Django
Django

Wow. This continues to be a fascinating series. One of the better so far on MMQB and that's saying something.

On some level I knew that officials took their job seriously and also had day jobs...but reading the details makes a much bigger impression. Looking forward to the next parts of the series.

George
George

refs suck.  Brought to you by peter "no-neck" king sponsored by Microsoft.

Be sure to "bing" on your "Surface Tablet"  - peter says so! (cha-CHING!)


RTR
RTR

we need addresses and phone numbers.

Mark20
Mark20

Ive noticed that the people enjoying this are all ex-officials. You know why? Because the rest of us could give a crap. What's next, the lives of beer vendors at NFL stadiums? Go on, keep giving these guys headlines. Pretty soon they will be calling lots more penalties to get more camera time. Great work.

pirate
pirate

Outstanding. The kind of reporting that is both human and intellectual, lets us see the refs as people, and understand what they do and how they impact this game we all love.

Hotstover
Hotstover

As a ten-year high school football official, I find this series absolutely fascinating! We do some of the things these guys do, but on a Little League scale comparatively. I find the high school speed pretty fast sometimes - I can't even imagine what it's like trying to do it at the NFL level. And just like you all - I yell at the officials on TV as well, but deep down, I at least understand what a tough job they have to do! As a Dolphins fan, I have had it out for Steratore since the 2010 Pittsburgh debacle, but, at the same time, I know what he does isn't easy, and when people make actual personal threats to him, that's way over the line. Sports is entertainment, not real life (for the fans, anyways), and we should leave our anger w/in that entertainment spectrum/reality. Make no mistake, these guys get calls wrong, and will continue to, but they are human, work very hard at their craft and - bottom line - it's a craft that is extremely difficult to do at a high level! Appreciate that when you watch games this Sunday!

Epacific
Epacific

Excellent, excellent series!  While I had assumed that the officials had some type of self-monitoring mechanism along with their daily pre-game abulations, I was completely clueless about the extent of their preparations and evaluations.  I think this series helps everyone: the players( who will better understand the lengths the refs go to get the calls right), the fans (who will have a better idea of the ref's perspective and, hopefully, be more hesitant of unthinkingly blaming any call that goes against their team), and the referees themselves (who should get some long overdue appreciation for all of their efforts.)  Peter, you deserve a nice tall cold one (or a hot mocha as the case may be).

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

Don't the refs know that you are supposed to STAY OFF THE WHITE BORDER??? Oh, wait, that is just the coaches who want to trip players. Never mind.

JMillerNC
JMillerNC

Love this series.  It really puts perspective on the job of the officials.  Great work, Peter.

TravisHastings
TravisHastings

I get the purpose behind this article, but I'm still of the philosophy that refs should be nearly invisible. I don't want to know their names, their families, their jobs, hopes, aspirations, or dreams. Maybe it's my love the NBA and the massive officiating problem with that sport that has made up my mind. Officials should by anonymous and should only be accountable to the league, not fans. Don't put the officials name on screen, don't put his crew's name on the screen. 

zzcraigzz
zzcraigzz

I wonder whether SI is paid by Microsoft, or if King is just getting a kickback on the side. What possible purpose does it serve to the story to mention each day that the NFL issued tablet is specifically a "Surface Tablet"?

StephenGrange
StephenGrange

Utterly fascinating..Thanks for the article.

manan.shah23
manan.shah23

I want to commend you on this series. It is a thoughtful look at the behind the scenes work and responsibility that refs have. More than that, it showcases the amount of time and effort they put into their position and not just show up at the games on a Sunday.  Really thoughtful and hopefully will show refs in a better light than some people might see them in. Really well done, Peter & team. 

surfphillips
surfphillips

I am on my way to sons flag practice and I know how you feel.

doyleholland
doyleholland

@Fred24 Reading all four of your comments here, I find myself in general agreement, and have only these comments to add:


1. I believe that 2 coaches challenges are insufficient. The number should be increased to 3 per half, and teams should not be penalized with the loss of a timeout if a challenge is not upheld. And I absolutely believe that the archaic rule that certain calls cannot be reviewed must be abolished.


2. The upstairs official must be supplemented with a team. It shouldn't just be one person. This team must be given direct access to all of the broadcast crews audio and video communications feeds so they can monitor individual players and their interactions in real-time and immediately alert the onfield official to something he may not be noticing.


3. Onfield officials must wear voice communications equipment that enables them to talk at all times with (a) each other, (b) their upstairs officials, and (c) with the coaches and quarterbacks of each team.


As you so aptly note, technology (of all forms) is much more advanced. The video and audio equipment used by the television crews is highly capable. There is no reason why the onfield officials must be forced to run to each other to talk face-to-face, or run to the sidelines to speak to the coaches.

Fred24
Fred24

BTW ALL calls should be subject to challenge, with the 2 per half limitation.  Pass Interference and now the infamous 'Roughing the Passer' (at least how now is applied), these two alone will change the outcome of a close game in the last 3 minutes 90% of the time.

pirate
pirate

@Mark20 I'm not an official or ex-official. Haven't played football since sophomore year in high school, more years ago than I care to recall. This series is fascinating. If you don't want to understand the inner workings of an integral part of the game, don't read it. But please, don't show your ignorance with comments like that.

Mark20
Mark20

@TravisHastings Completely with you on this. How about an article on how the waterboys and towel guys live and how they affect the game. LOL.

jnelso1922
jnelso1922

@TravisHastings I don't know how not knowing who they are is classified as old school, I may not always know the line judge or back judge, but you always know who the referee is, especially in the NBA/NHL and umpires in baseball. Whether it's this crew or a nameless/faceless crew it's interesting to know how they perform the work they do and what they also may do around it.

buffsblg
buffsblg

@TravisHastings Totally disagree. They are a vital part of the game and understanding that they are people and the way they do their job makes me a more informed viewer. Having them as anonymous robots would not prevent the moronic abuse they take.  

Domer88
Domer88

@zzcraigzz I noticed that, too.  Parts One and Two mentioned Surface Tablet, like a really bad product placement in a movie.


RA_Chiefsfan
RA_Chiefsfan

@Reedster2185 Patriots favorable calls? How about how if 31 other teams run pick plays it's illegal and results in a penalty but when Manning and Denver do it then it goes down as a great play?

Fred24
Fred24

Lastly, add a quick-minded head official upstairs at all games who can quickly interject his opinion when the Refs get too confused. This was going to be adopted this season and then somehow got 'lost' in the shuffle. Madden was talking about this on Sirius yesterday.



Mark20
Mark20

@pirate @Mark20 It's an opinion. I love football and the mental aspects of the game. So it is NOT ignorance. It's an opinion that states, "I don't care about refs, I care about players and teams". Ignorance is believing that as you spotlight the officials, that that won't affect their understanding of their roles. They can become prima donnas. Don't tell me you haven't watched a game (remember the Seahawks vs. Steelers SB?) where refs think they need to take over the game. Keep this up and it will get worse.

pirate
pirate

@Domer88 @zzcraigzz On the other hand, it's those telling details a writer looks for that let the reader make a more complete picture. I'm a Mac guy myself, so Microsoft details make me flinch, but it's the kind of thing that lets you visualize it better.

Fred24
Fred24

One thing for sure - officiating MUST be changed if the NFL is to be taken seriously after this season.

pirate
pirate

@George @Mark20 @pirate (Sigh.) But if you read the story, you see how seriously they take their jobs, how important not just being impartial but being seen as being impartial, is to them. This series is so filled with information about how they work and what they do, it will change the way I watch football. And part of the story, especially in the first installment, was all the systems in place to prevent exactly what you so worry about. 

UrsaMajor
UrsaMajor

@George @Mark20 @pirate Are you two so insecure about yourselves that you have to resort to personal attacks?  You are obviously both free not to read an article about referees, but seem to have some neurotic compulsion to read, and then pepper your opinions with personal attacks.

Pretty soon you guys will have your own reality TV show, competing with Duck Dynasty and the Kardashians if you keep this up.

George
George

@Mark20 @pirate Your point is well taken.  Refs should be anonymous / invisible.   That's all we need, is some prima dona attention-ho refs, vying for status and camera time.

But then look who wrote this POS.  The biggest attention-ho of all time.  Thinks we care about his beers, his coffee, and "things he thinks he thinks."  no-neck skunk.

Richard B
Richard B

@zzcraigzz @pirate @Domer88 I think it is critical to the story to say that the NFL pays for technology for their refs. The refs are using a tablet provided by the NFL and not a VCR from the attic :)

zzcraigzz
zzcraigzz

@pirate @zzcraigzz @Domer88 You do realize that Microsoft is a corporate sponsor of thier site. One mention, sure, maybe. But each article has to point out that the NFL issues a product of their core site sponsor, it is a fair question to bring up.

pirate
pirate

@zzcraigzz @pirate @Domer88 No, although the Coke can IS an iconic image. On the whole I'd rather have too much detail than too little. When he mentioned the tablet by name, in your mind didn't you see the Microsoft desktop? It's part of the picture I see when I'm reading. I don't believe (and can't believe you do) that Microsoft actually paid for the mention. That's just hyperbole. It might be interesting to know if the NFL bought the tablets, or if Microsoft donated them as a marketing tool. But of course that's outside the purview of this story.

zzcraigzz
zzcraigzz

@pirate @Domer88 @zzcraigzz . Next you are going to tell me it was critical to the story to know whether or not that cola Steratore had with dinner on Friday was a Coke or a Pepsi? Guess the big beverage companies weren't willing to provide some cash (Steratore endorsing Coke doesn't carry the same weight as the NFL), so you will never get that critical bit of info to fully understand his dinner.

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