Game 150: The Test

The speed and dynamism of today’s NFL challenges officials as much as it does the players. And with teams like Baltimore and Chicago fighting for playoff spots, there’s added passion and pressure. (Jeff Haynes for SI/The MMQB)
The speed and dynamism of today’s pro game challenges officials as much as it does the players. And with teams like Baltimore and Chicago fighting for the playoffs, pressure only increases. (Jeff Haynes for SI/The MMQB)

For this crew, four plays in the first six minutes show there will be no Arizona hangover.

Play 6. On a Baltimore punt return, Tandon Doss fumbles while going to the ground. The Bears’ Sherrick McManis picks it up and runs it in for a touchdown. But back at the spot of the fumble, field judge Bob Waggoner is signaling Doss was down. He tells Steratore that Doss’s right knee was on the ground as the ball came loose. The Bears, seeing the replay upstairs, decide not to challenge. Good no-challenge. Would have been fruitless. “The ruling on the field is the runner was down by contact,” Steratore announces. “First down Baltimore.” BOOOOOOOO.

Play 8. Baltimore ball. Stretch play. Run or play-action? Steratore is positioned 12 yards behind the right wide receiver. Schuster is positioned 13 yards behind the left tackle. Here is the precise play they drilled for yesterday. Could be a run or pass. Flacco hands it to Rice, who cuts back toward the left guard. From his vantage point, Steratore now stares at the right guard and tackle, and sees a momentary hook by right guard Yanda on the defensive tackle—but Yanda releases him almost as soon as he is into him; no foul. Schuster, looking at his three offensive linemen in the middle, sees center Geno Gradkowski maul defensive tackle Stephen Paea to the ground. Clean block. No hold. Rice gains 47, cleanly.

Play 10. Flacco throws for the end zone to tight end Ed Dickson on a ball that might be uncatchable. Safety Chris Conte bearhugs Dickson a full second before the ball arrives. Paganelli, watching from the end line, has the yellow flag in his right hand and throws it. Immediately he motions for pass interference and points to Conte. For this he had to rule not only that Dickson—who actually caught the pass on the end line—was interfered with, but that the ball could have been caught in bounds if he hadn’t been interfered with. On replay, it’s clear Paganelli made the right call.

Play 15. A challenge—and one that’s tougher than it looks. Josh McCown throws a short pass to Alshon Jeffery. As Jeffery turns upfield and is tackled, the ball slips out, and the Ravens jump on it. It’s very close as to whether the ball comes out when he is down, or just before—and whether Jeffery completes the act of the catch. Line judge Jeff Seeman immediately runs in and rules catch and down by contact. John Harbaugh throws the red challenge flag.

Steratore, walking to the sideline, wants to make one thing clear to Harbaugh on this rare play. “John, you can’t end up with the ball here,” he tells the Ravens’ coach. “You can have an incomplete pass, but on a ruling of down by contact, the fumble is not a reviewable play.” But Harbaugh tells him he simply wants to challenge the ruling of a completed pass.

*  *  *

Steratore has 60 seconds in the booth to review a play after a challenge—he can call up angles from every camera at the game. Once the decision is made, Waggoner is charged with relaying the message to both coaches. (Jeff Haynes for SI/The MMQB)
Steratore has 60 seconds in the booth to review a play after a challenge—he can call up angles from every camera at the game. Once the decision is made, he informs Waggoner, who conveys it to other members of the crew to tell both coaches. (Jeff Haynes for SI/The MMQB)

This is as good a time as any in a long story about officiating to talk about the review process.

First, Steratore makes the announcement that the Ravens are challenging the ruling on the field of a completed pass. Then he “punches out for commercial,” meaning with two balled-up fists he punches the air to the side, signaling the TV crew (CBS in this case) to go to a break. Meanwhile, the replay assistant and replay official are gathering the television angles seen by however many cameras are working that game. When Steratore, accompanied by Waggoner, reaches the replay booth behind the Bears’ sideline, he puts his headset on and says to replay official Paul Weidner, “Pauly, you have any good angles for me to see?” Weidner does, and—here’s another ref phrase—he “dumps the bucket” of all the plays he has for Steratore. Once Steratore goes inside the curtains in the portable booth and the screen turns on, a timer begins to run: 60, 59, 58, 57 … . At zero the screen will automatically go black.

From the touch screen, Steratore can choose whichever angle in the bucket he thinks will help. On this play, the first shot is the main live broadcast feed, which Steratore finds inconclusive. The second, a low end zone shot from behind the Chicago offense, suggests that Jeffery lost the ball before it was a catch. Steratore needs more. On the third shot, low from the Chicago sideline, he sees this: Jeffery turned upfield and began to make the football act, in this case to run with the ball, but almost immediately the ball started to come loose. Steratore now is certain the receiver didn’t have the ball long enough for a completed catch.

That determination took about 40 seconds. Now he has to return to the first replay, to confirm which hashmark and yard line the ball was originally on and to get the exact time on the clock when the incompletion happened.

Steratore emerges from the booth, tells Waggoner the ball should be at the Chicago 23, at the near hashmark, and that the clock should be reset to 9:17. Two officials inform each coach, while Steratore goes to the field, waits for the signal from the sideline TV crewman, presses the microphone button on his belt, and announces: “After review, the ruling is an incomplete pass. The receiver did not maintain possession through the process of the catch. The ball is incomplete. It will be Chicago’s ball, third down and seven from the 23-yard line. The ball will placed in the middle of the field. Baltimore will not be charged with a timeout. Will the game clock operator please reset the game clock to 9 minutes, 17 seconds, 9:17 on the game clock please.”

A bit wordy—Steratore didn’t need to give the incomplete notice, nor the time on the clock, twice. But he got the call right. He corrected a bang-bang decision that was clearly in error. That’s what replay is for.

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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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