Game 150: The Test

lockerroom-12a-800
Game balls that have passed the pressure test—12.5 to 13.5 PSI—sit in a locker room sink, waiting for their time. (John DePetro/The MMQB)

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.”

* * *

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38 comments
HughJardonn
HughJardonn

What this pathetic ref crew did to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game was criminal. Of course they'll get away with it scot free and people like King will sing their praises, because these clowns can do what they want and are protected, but their performance in that game was atrocious to the point of where even if there wasn't flat out corruption involved, in my book there is anyway because the league allows such atrocious officiating to go on, even in the biggest of games, and these morons are never held accountable. It's just a matter of time before the NFL loses credibility, and once it does, say goodnight. They won't get it back.

DavidMiller1
DavidMiller1

Great series, I'm all in with your page. Already bookmarked

JackBowie
JackBowie

what was added to this article by the gratuitous referencing of Christian activities? leave that out and you have a better article. or discuss the refs who didn't attend the devotional and what their activities were during that time. it was an enjoyable article until that straight up pandering took me out of the moment.

FeliciaFitzgerald
FeliciaFitzgerald

And another thing...


People who can do nothing other than focus on the Patriots "always" getting penalty calls in their favor should realize that this game, vs the Browns, was not determined by the pass interference call at the end of the game.


The game was decided when the Patriots recovered the on-side kick. It was a text book example of how to recover an on-side kick. No question. Not the slightest infraction. A complete, 100% legitimate on-side kick recovery.


That, my friends, was the game. The Patriots had the ball on the Browns 39-yd line with 50+ seconds left. Even if the pass interference penalty wasn't called, they would have easily moved the ball and got the TD. There can be no doubt about that.


It's just that jealous haters have to hate. And the Patriots have been so good for so long that everyone is jealous. And jealousy breeds hatred.

lcobber
lcobber

Great series.  Hard to watch the game now without taking this information into consideration...especially the Hawks vs. Niners when the entire room (and Sherm postgame) is commenting about all the bad calls. What a tough job.   It would be great to follow the crew and how they do for the remainder of the season...maybe a quick MMQB update for the rest of the year? 

Fred24
Fred24

The problem is that officiating, regardless of reason, IS determining the outcomes of games, thus who goes to the post-season and thus who even wins the SB. In turn,  that leads to major shifts in team fortunes, player movement and coaches hired or fired. Bad officiating has huge real human implications. 

Above all, it undermines the integrity of the game. After 40+ years of being a rabid NFL fan, now I look at it light-heatedly and may read 1-2 articles for the week and no longer listen to NFL talk shows on the radio, and turn it all off till the following Sunday. Its like its not quite real, and very phoney.


Again, make the rules in a manner that CAN be applied or enforced consistently, not set an objective (player safety for example) and give the reps too much latitude to achieve that new goal. Use technology, the human error argument is no longer attractive, we know humans are flawed.


It is NOT fair to anyone playing the game, coaches and all personnel and fans of each teams, their fortunes decided by the 'third' team they have no control of, nor can even criticize without being fined. What are we trying to hide? Incompetence?

TeamZebra904
TeamZebra904

To any and all who are criticizing the third team.  Take a moment and man up and walk in their shoes a mile.  Even officiating high school ball is difficult without the proper preparation. 

Dumptruck
Dumptruck

Nice article, but still doesn't make me feel any better about them with some of the calls they make that make you wanna pull the hair out of your scalp!

friendo
friendo

I always enjoy these behind the scenes articles. I think the crews do well in a difficult position. But these two quotes are almost comical in juxtaposition:


“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.”


"That’s what Blandino wants—officials who don’t think of grades, but rather of the right calls."

Phroggo
Phroggo

"The crew concept is the crux of what we do .  .  ." that quote is from field judge Bob Waggoner and that concept kept seeping through in all sections of this fine, long overdue, report on NFL officiating.  Why, then, does the NFL break up the crews in the playoffs?   

jshawaii22
jshawaii22

Great reading and well worth the time.   But it does leave me with the feeling that the 'rules', such as they are becoming... is a joke.    The mantra of 'protect the QB' is OK,  yes, I'd rather see Manning, Brady, et al, but the calls are becoming so slight that it does need refining.   A 'tap' on the helmet as you pass the QB is NOT roughing.  


Peter, you should tell us readers your thoughts, now that you've seen it in real time.  How do you feel about what the NFL is doing with the safety first rules?  Where is the game headed?    Red Shirts for QB's?  Skirts?


js

Scottpevas
Scottpevas

No downgrades for Peter King this week (or any week, really). Great series that brings new appreciation to the game. Wish someone would do a similar series on baseball umpires. Thanks.

KevinB2014
KevinB2014

That was an awesome article. Very well done. So much insight into an area of football most fans know very little about. I'm sorry the series is over! Nice job.

MichaelFrancisShorkey
MichaelFrancisShorkey

Peter;

As usual great article about maybe the hardest working guys on the field.  Did this for several years and was privileged to work with several guys in the Metrolina Association who also worked in the NFL.  What so many people don't realize is that while the intensity is much higher as you go up the ladder, the dedication to getting it right and the passion for football is constant.

prinzing
prinzing

Great series, insightful and original. What bothers me is that the officialsclearly work as a team as much as the players do however they are given individual grades and the best individuals are them reassembled into new teams to work the post season. IMO it would make far more sense to have the best teams work the post season and send the best individuals to the Pro-bowl.

MikeHarrison
MikeHarrison

As a fan, I really never cared about the officials, but this three part series, opened my eyes. I knew officials were graded, but assumed it was after the season, not after every game. Thanks MMQB for this fascinating piece into something that was never known about

ceefax72
ceefax72

As someone who officiated the game in the UK, thank you for the highlight on the most undervalued team on the field.

w.park25
w.park25

A wonderful series.. Thank you Mr. King.

I respect the officials more now that I understand

what they go through.

They are men of integrity & I will not scream at them as much now!

Folducker
Folducker

Great insight on the workings of this game and a great writing job. Mr. King, I am so impressed that I am taking back 40% of all the bad things I have ever said about you!!!!

jt_horner
jt_horner

What an interesting article about the unseen (hopefully), but very important parts of the game. The time these guys take to review plays and work towards being perfect is truly amazing. The speed of the game, size of the players and litany of rules makes this job seem even more difficult than I previously imagined. I was eagerly reading about the professionalism these gentlemen embody to be fair and invisible. It was funny to think that the did not even know the scores to the games, that is focus on the task.

buffsblg
buffsblg

It never occurred to me that officials have to understand the game plan and plays to correctly officiate or the detailed keys they have to be in position. Like most fans I paid attention when officials made a mistake (in my mind) and ignored the rest. Good journalism tells you things you did not know but should. This series meets that definition completely. Thanks to King and his crew and to the NFL for allowing the access. 

StephenGrange
StephenGrange

Keep em' coming Mr. King..GREAT insight to a piece of the game I barely knew existed.

jkfsilk
jkfsilk

I thought this series was great - lot of solid insight. Makes me more convinced than ever that NFL refs should be a full time position with as much preparation as the position requires as long as overall knowledge.

jim2710
jim2710

An amazing series on the NFL and the (mostly) unseen side!

Well done Peter! 

pirate
pirate

Great, great work Mr. King. What a great series. Thank you. I'll never look at referees, or a football game for that matter, quite the same again. As a writer, what more can you ask than that?

Nozaki
Nozaki

Awesome series. Loved to see the crew's hard work in a really tough game.

JMillerNC
JMillerNC

Again, Peter, what a great series.  I really felt a connection with Steratore and his crew; my respect for those guys only deepens.  Great job.

stevesturm1
stevesturm1

Question: do the refs get downgraded in any way for making a call that the referee reverses (correctly) on challenge?

PaulParsons
PaulParsons

@JackBowie Did you notice that he mentioned that half the crew doesn't attend, sounds like equal time to me....

MikeKehoe
MikeKehoe

@JackBowie it wasn't gratuitous.  He outlined and commented on every aspect of their day.

TeamZebra904
TeamZebra904

All this to say, if you can do better, put on the stripes and prove it.


randomdeletion
randomdeletion

It was a fluff piece of writing to try and make the officials look good. 

doyleholland
doyleholland

@jshawaii22 I cannot fault any of the referee crews for this changing aspect of the game.


The problem, if it can be said to be a problem, is at 345 Park Avenue in New York, with Goodell and his NFL executives, and even more profoundly, the problem lies with us, the fans.


Goodell and the owners are between a rock and a hard place. The public is increasingly aware of the severe danger that brain injury poses to these players, but at the same time, the public is unwilling to accept the strict rule changes that would severely restrict the occurrence of these injuries.


This ever-shifting public mood makes it tough for the NFL. In one week, the public wants the league to control injuries whenever a superb and highly-critical documentary like PBS/Frontline's "League of Denial" (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/league-of-denial) comes out. Yet just a few weeks later, as the playoff picture becomes critical, the public wants a loosening up of these "err-on-the-side-of-player-safety" calls as they affect their teams on-field fortunes.


The NFL execs then respond to this fickleness by changing how they grade officials, and officials respond to this upgrading and downgrading by doing exactly what Gene Steratore did between the earlier game and Game 150 when it comes time to make those bang-bang Unnecessary Roughness calls.

KevinB2014
KevinB2014

@stevesturm1 I was wondering the same thing. We can all conjecture, but I hope Peter reads this and answers it Tuesday. 

picklejuice
picklejuice

@stevesturm1 I was wondering the same thing. But, since no one was downgraded for that game. I assume that means that you don't get a downgrade for a challenged call being reversed.

ceefax72
ceefax72

@picklejuice @stevesturm1 I would imagine that they would get one of the 'support only' grades where they agree that it was incorrect but too close to be a full downgrade as replay was necessary to get the call right, though I suppose if the mistake was egregious enough a downgrade should be applied.

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