Game 150: The Test
For the men of Gene Steratore’s crew, Ravens vs. Bears in Week 11 offered a chance at redemption for their worst performance of the season. An overtime game, played in crazy Chicago conditions, challenged their preparation, their judgment and their teamwork. Would they make the grade?
In November, The MMQB was granted unprecedented access to an NFL officiating crew before, during and after the Ravens-Bears game 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. Part 2 detailed the lives of the seven-man crew. Today, we examine the pre-game rituals, and an unusual Game 150 in stormy Illinois.
Saturday, Nov. 16
Marriott O’Hare, Chicago
At 3:30 p.m., in the tidy 338-square-foot Dearborn Room on the meeting level of this little city of a hotel, 10 NFL employees gather around a large rectangular table. A big screen is on the far wall. Gene Steratore, the referee and leader of the crew for Sunday’s Ravens-Bears game at Soldier Field, is at the head of the table on the right side, and NFL officiating supervisor Gary Slaughter—who will grade the crew’s seven officials on their performance—is at the head on the left. Around the table, clockwise from Steratore: side judge Mike Weatherford, umpire Bill Schuster, replay official Paul Weidner, replay assistant Brian Dipinto, field judge Bob Waggoner, line judge Jeff Seeman, back judge Dino Paganelli and head linesman Wayne Mackie.
I am the interloper, having never sat in on one of these. (Obviously: The NFL customarily keeps all officiating matters behind an iron curtain of secrecy.) So how would I have any idea what the feeling in the room normally is? I wouldn’t.
But there seems to be some tightness in this group. Some nerves. One of the first things Steratore says to the room when everyone’s seated is, “Guys, very big game tomorrow.” In part, the previous Sunday in Arizona is why. The crew had its worst day of the year by far: six downgrades upon post-game NFL review for the Texans-Cards game, including two for Steratore, who’d been having a very good year. In NFL parlance, “downgrade” equals “significant error,” and Steratore was glum when he got the news Tuesday. “There goes the Super Bowl,” he’d said. So the Baltimore-Chicago game, for this crew, is a crucial one. The seven field officials have to get back on track, or they risk being left out of the precious high-profile postseason assignments.
Even when Schuster, the gruff resident needler, hears the shirt choice for Sunday’s game—Schuster always prefers short sleeves—and throws in his two cents, the mood doesn’t lighten much.
“We’ll be in long sleeves tomorrow,” says Steratore. “We’re gonna have some weather out there.”
“Unbelievable,” Schuster says, shaking his head. “Why? Can we vote? What’s it called when everyone has a vote?”
“A democracy,” says Seeman.
“We’re a democracy run by a dictator,” Schuster grumbles.
What got the crew—particularly Steratore—in trouble last week were a couple bad calls on unnecessary roughness (UNR in ref parlance). Steratore chose not to flag two hits on Houston quarterback Case Keenum that the league felt should have been flagged. And so early in this meeting, when Slaughter has the floor, he says in his Texas accent, “Guys, the biggest thing on our radar is UNR. Roughing the quarterback, stay after those. Remember, we want you to err on the side of safety.”
The group watches a tape of plays sent to all crews by NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, who narrates. Blandino shows a good no-call on what was close to a helmet-to-helmet hit, and he illustrates a good referee announcement after another play. Standard stuff for the Steratore crew. Then Steratore shows about 20 plays of the Ravens and Bears, with elements he wants each official to watch for on Sunday. Specifically, they go over positioning. For 23 minutes the tape rolls, and they’re speaking a foreign language, starting with the mechanics of how to officiate a Baltimore running play on which Ray Rice sharply cuts back up the middle.
Steratore: “On a normal scenario, if this is a run, Flacco’s handing this off to Rice or whoever it is. So, this is our POA [point of attack] right here. Which takes me to 73 [right guard Marshal Yanda], thinking about a POA seal. Shoe [Schuster] is also working inside out, so he doesn’t get out on this at all. He’s not really looking to that action. This is not a sweep look.”
Schuster: “Ray Rice cuts it—he’s not playing a lot right now—but that back’s gonna cut right back where the guard-center is. They’re famous for that cutback right at that hash.”
Steratore: “So you know you’re gonna hold now more on this tight end, which is gonna free me to go work 74/73 [right tackle Michael Oher and Yanda] on the back side. Wayne, you’re holding your guy now.”
Schuster: “Now all of the sudden, when I read that, now I have to re-change my keys, and now I’ll pick up that back guard.”
To translate: When quarterback Joe Flacco has a stretch play—either running or play-action—to the left that cuts back quickly up the guard-center gap, assignments are malleable. On a pass, Steratore immediately has both tackles and the quarterback to watch; Schuster would have the three interior offensive linemen. But if Rice takes the handoff, Steratore transitions to cover the right guard and right tackle; Schuster takes the center and left guard. Head linesman Wayne Mackie stays with the tight end in either scenario.
Confused? You’ll never last in this job if you can’t quickly transition from the possibility of a run to play-action pass.
Think of all the motioning and changing of positions on an average play, and remember that each of the 22 players theoretically should be covered by one of the seven field officials at all times. That’s why Steratore and Schuster are trying to get their assignments straight here. They think they’ll see this play tomorrow, perhaps a few times.
Now, Steratore shares a few words about on-field conferences among members of the crew. “They’re good,” he says, “and I want you to have ’em. You know I’m not gonna be in your conversation. You come to a resolution. I’m gonna give you four, five seconds, and then you tell me the call. Have a conviction, and tell me.”
When Steratore was watching Bears tape on Tuesday, he spotted an illegal play by Chicago tight end Martellus Bennett. Steratore highlights it now on tape. On the play, Bennett hooks his left arm into the midsection of Lions defensive end Willie Young. Because Bennett is well-shielded by players on either side of him, it’s hard to see the left arm holding Young from rushing, and twisting him around. Very crafty.
“Look at 83,” Steratore says of Bennett. “Savvy. Very savvy. He does this too good. Tomorrow, any action similar to that is a hold. Got that? If we see it, it’s a hold.”
After an hour and a half the meeting winds down. Steratore goes over the schedule for the night and for Sunday: Meet in the lobby at 6 p.m. to walk over to Gino’s East for deep dish pizza; Devotional back in this room Sunday at 7:30 a.m., breakfast available at 7:45, van to the game at 9 for the noon Central start.
Now Steratore wants to set the tone for the game, the same way a head coach tries to do in his Saturday meetings. Listening to Steratore—the tone, the enthusiasm, the seriousness—you might mistake him for a coach. He sounds just like one, standing in front of the crew, moving his gaze from one set of eyes to the other during his seven-minute pep talk:
“We had a good talk on Tuesday, and the good talk on Tuesday leads to one thing and one thing only, and that’s just communicating on this field in all aspects. From pregame, to follows on the field, to plays that we’re talking about. One thing we can’t do—we can’t [just] officiate in our area and stay in our area, and start working as individuals. We never have, and we’re not going to start. Okay?
“Continue to be the kind of official that puts you in the room [among other NFL officials]. That’s a good official … It’s how we work the season as a crew, because that’s where we get our measure of success and satisfaction through the end of the year—no matter what we do in the postseason. Postseason’s irrelevant. Let them handle that in New York. That’s their job. Our job is to handle 15 very difficult football games in a very short window of time. Get mentally prepared—Wednesday finishes the week before—and get your head focused on the next task at hand. That’s a challenge that we all have gone through.
“You guys have lived this every week. It’s no different. The games just get bigger, and the games get harder, and this game is a hard game. Both of these teams … can go from being out of the playoffs to winning their division. So that’s how much is at stake tomorrow. That’s the time of year that we’re in. They’re both aggressive teams. Extremely aggressive teams. Their mark is that they kick people’s asses. Knowing that up front, stop the progress—get the whistles. Set the tone for the game. Talk to these players and get them in and out of stuff. It’s big-boy stuff. Work it the way that we’ve always worked it. We’re back into that rhythm and take care of that business.
“The quarterback this week for Chicago played, what, the last half of the last quarter? He’s not a bad quarterback. Josh McCown can play. These guys got a pretty good offensive line. They’ve got a big wideout with Brandon Marshall; two tight ends a lot of times as well. So they come in with the big set. They come in to kick your ass. Baltimore is struggling like hell to run the football, but I don’t think for one second that they’re gonna throw the ball 54 times tomorrow. They’re gonna keep trying to run the football, okay? So it’s physical football. It’s tough football. They’re coached by two good guys. Communicate with these guys. Get close to those coaches in replay, and walk them through the replay. What we’re looking at, what I come out with—it’s important that what I give to Wags [Waggoner] outside the curtain gets moved to those coaches. I’m not one to sit there to wait for the magic of the microphone. I want him to know what the hell is going on before everybody else knows, so he knows what we’re doing on the field.
“We’ve got to increase our level of communication. Keep trusting each other. Keep working your area, and then go ahead and expand your area …
“Have faith in each other and confidence in each other, and just get the thing moving forward again, alright? Everybody in here is Super Bowl-caliber people. All of you. But you’ve all been around long enough to know the business. So just work the game.
“When it comes down to it, all of this stuff for seven days comes down to the beauty of it—12 o’clock Central time tomorrow we get three hours and ten minutes to do what the hell we do …
“Everybody keep doing what you’re doing. We’re having a very great year as a crew. What happens to you all individually happens to you all individually. That’s your business at the end of the day. That’s not where I’m going with this. Come February, I’m happy that the crew finished and had another great season. We’ve got a bunch of big football games on the horizon. This one is a big one tomorrow. Big f—— game tomorrow. Alright? Let’s put this thing right back on track—not that it fell off—but this crew doesn’t sit and talk about four or five downgrades a week.”
Steratore hangs around to watch a few more plays after the rest of the officials leave. He knows it’s a good crew—he wasn’t just blowing smoke. It’s no accident that this crew is assigned to the Denver-New England [Peyton Manning-Tom Brady] game—the third straight Manning-Brady game the Steratore crew has had—or to the Detroit-Green Bay Thanksgiving Day game. This is a well-respected crew. Steratore wants them to be confident Sunday. What he said at the end was right: He thinks the crew has to get back on track after an uncharacteristically shaky game. If it doesn’t, most if not all of them will be home in January. Just as the Bears and Ravens are driving for the playoffs when they play tomorrow, so too are the seven men on this officiating crew.
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At dinner, there’s a bottle of wine on the table. The only drinkers are the three civilians—the two representatives of The MMQB, and Steratore’s fiancée, Lisa Mauro, who has made the trip from western Pennsylvania. “Rubbing it in, aren’t you?” Schuster says. The officials cannot drink the day before a game. They are about the only ones in this Chicago pizza bistro who aren’t consuming something alcoholic.
I sit next to Mike Weatherford, the quiet member of the crew. He made what I thought was a very good call in the Houston-Arizona game, a bang-bang touchdown call for Andre Johnson inches from the right boundary stripe. On tape, you see Weatherford staring at the play with bent knees, processing it for half a second, and shooting his arms up in the air. The Cards howled, saying Johnson was out of bounds. But Weatherford turned out to be right on review. “The mechanics of a play like that are feet and then the catch,” he says, meaning see if the feet are in first, then check to see if the receiver has possession. But this one happened way too fast. “You really have to make that call by feel. You have to trust your instincts, that you’ve seen that play so many times.”
Then we discuss something important to Weatherford: He’s the league’s only Native American official, and the only Native American to have worked a Super Bowl (Green Bay-Pittsburgh three years ago). He’s from the Chickasaw tribe in Oklahoma. He tells me his ancestors were run out of Mississippi on the Trail of Tears—the ethnic cleansing of American Indians in the South 180 years ago—and said that for years being Native American wasn’t a point of pride. “There were Native Americans who scrubbed their faces, trying to look more white,” he said. So doing the Super Bowl was a proud moment not only for his family, but also the 40,000 Chickasaws.
“Officiating in the NFL for me is a dream come true,” he said. “It’s a dream that’s still coming true.”
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