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.
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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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