Questions about Game 150: A Week in the Life of An Officiating Crew.
So, for those who passed my 14,800-word endurance test/three-part series about the real lives of officials, congratulations. And thanks for reading one of my favorite assignments in 30 years covering the NFL. If you haven’t, the links to the stories about ref Gene Steratore, his crew, and the weekend of a football game are to the right
I’m going to answer several questions you sent from Twitter and via email, but first, I wanted to address one that many of you have asked—how did this story come about?
Last winter I decided to stay at SI and start The MMQB. I wanted it to be the kind of website devoted to helping you learn more about the game you love. I wanted to take you places you’ve never been, and experience parts of the game you’ve never seen. The Jason Garrett training camp speech to his team, for instance, or “What It’s Like to Get Whacked,” a first-person account of a veteran player, Austen Lane, stunned by getting cut. But what I wanted to do most was go behind the NFL’s iron curtain of officiating and spend a week with a crew—seeing the seven officials do their real-life jobs, noting how much homework they actually did, embedding with them as they went through their pre-game meeting and dinner Saturday, and their pre- and post-game routines Sunday. I approached the league last spring and presented my case (including selling them on the idea I would be putting it on a website that, at that time, did not exist). I met with new NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino twice, and in September he agreed to let me inside.
Why Steratore? Only because I knew he seemed like the kind of open guy to talk about the reality of the job. If the league hadn’t wanted to allow Steratore, that would have been fine with me; any one of the 17 referees would do. But Steratore was good with it, as was Blandino. And luckily, Steratore had similarly open guys on his crew, with the kind of interesting jobs that made telling the story more than just the officiating side. So there you have it.
Now for your queries:
From @barryshiller: “Are reg-season assignments ‘random?’ Steratore crew got multiple Peyton/Brady games; why give shaky crew [Seattle-San Francisco]?”
The league doesn’t acknowledge giving what it considers better crews bigger games, but the proof is in the assigning. I don’t believe the games are assigned randomly. In fact, former officiating czar Mike Pereira was clear with me that when he assigned games, he often looked for the crews he considered better ones to do the bigger games.
From @jimmurphy24: “What kind of consequences are there for refs who blow calls and games? Other than playoff appearances?”
As Blandino told me in Part 1, the better officials get playoff assignments, and theoretically (though this is a very gray area) the best officials get the Super Bowl. He said some officials who are consistently downgraded during the season are eligible to be replaced at the end of the year.
From @SCLANY: “What did you learn that was most surprising?”
Probably the obsession about positioning and maddening, ticky-tack detail. I detailed the inside-football day-before-the-game ritual of going over plays the Ravens and Bears were likely to run, and how it would affect which players certain officials would have on the play. In this case, I isolated on a stretch run play the Ravens ran, and how umpire Bill Schuster’s and referee Steratore’s jobs would change depending on whether it was a run or a play-action pass. In the blink of an eye, Steratore would change from watching the quarterback and two tackles to the right guard and right tackle. On the eighth play of the game the next day, the Ravens ran that exact play, and Steratore in the blink or an eye had to determine whether Baltimore guard Marshal Yanda committed a foul on Chicago defensive tackle Landon Cohen. Also, the details about preparing the footballs—those were fascinating to me.
From MTN335 (Nathan Murphy): “Did you get a comment (or at least a sense) about the near-constant accusations of cheating/favoritism by NFL Officials?”
Back judge Dino Paganelli grew up in Lions country, teaches school to Lions fans outside Grand Rapids, and is Michigan through and through. He cost the Lions the opening game of the 2010 season by ruling Calvin Johnson didn’t complete the act of a catch, though all of America was screaming that Johnson did. As head linesman and New Yorker Wayne Mackie said, it’s laughable to think he’d endanger his job to help his Jets or Giants win; he’d last 10 minutes in the job if that happened, because his supervisors at the league office would drum him out of the game. I can’t say that stuff has never happened. But all of the officials think it’s absurd.
From Tim, of Ponce, Puerto Rico: “Do refs get a downgrade on a call that ends up being reversed on a challenge? I mean are they penalized for making a coach waste a challenge or do they get a pass for getting the call right at the end?”
I asked Blandino for you, Tim. His response was no, officials usually are not downgraded, because replayable plays are most often bang-bang plays that are very close. “If we eventually get the call on the field right then we do not downgrade, unless it is so blatantly obvious that the call on the field was incorrect,” said Blandino.
From Matthew: “If, as you say, chemistry is such an important thing for the crews, why does the NFL break them up for the playoffs? Why not take the best overall crews, rather than picking and choosing certain officials who haven’t worked together all season, but now have to, with the extra pressure of the playoffs?”
Great question; many people asked this. Think of the composition of the crews this way. There are 17 officials at each position. Some are great, some are good, and some are passable. When the league puts the crews together, it’s not with the intention of taking a top person at every spot and putting them on one or two or three crews; all quality of officials are used on all crews. (I’m not good enough to figure out which are great and which struggle in my limited exposure to them. But make no mistake. Some struggle, and each year there are several who don’t get brought back and are replaced.) So let’s say Ed Hochuli’s crew has a very good ref, three good to very good guys and three who are marginal. If Hochuli is the highest-graded guy, should his men ride his coattails? Or if his crew is overall the best one, but has two officials in the bottom four or five at their position, why not take the best two guys and make the crew the best it can be? I understand the cry for crew quality, but I believe if you asked the ref who works the Super Bowl, he’d give up the chemistry his team has developed for the year in exchange for a great back judge he has confidence will make the tough, Calvin Johnson-type calls when the game is the biggest.
From Dhanesh K. Gupta, M.D.: “With the amount of time and effort that is required to maintain a high quality crew, I am confused by why they are not full time employees of the NFL, and what are the impediments to making this happen? You would think that these crews could easily be involved in teaching referees at others levels of the game during the offseason to make this a viable option. Keep up the amazing work with your group on The MMQB.”
Thanks, Dhanesh. Quite a few of these guys have fairly lucrative real jobs. Maybe in the long run it would help the quality to have these guys work their NFL jobs full-time (I am dubious), but in the short run a guy like Steratore—who has a very successful family janitorial-supply business and who does very well reffing NCAA Division I basketball—might get run off if you told him to stop reffing basketball and leave the family business. He’d have a tough choice to make, and I’m not sure he’d pick the NFL. My question, I guess, is what would these guys do to be better during the week and through the offseason? The majority of plays that are missed are the bang-bang plays like pass interference and helmet-to-helmet hits with guys flying at each other at full speed. How do you simulate that? Maybe the closest would be to do college games as well. But would the officials risk the confusion of the two rulebooks then? Maybe; I don’t know. I just don’t know many ways, other than big college games, to simulate what you’d want the officials to work on—and what the chance is that they would be better because of it.
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It’s going to be a fun week at The MMQB.
On the heels of the ref series, we’ve got another fun week for you. Some of the stories we have this week:
COACH FAVRE. Jenny Vrentas reports from Jackson, Miss., and the Mississippi 6A high school football championship game, where Oak Grove High, with offensive coordinator Brett Favre calling the plays, won the title 14-7 on a frigid night in the state capital. Vrentas caught up with Favre and asked what he’s learned from the gig this year. “I realize how much of a pain I was [as a player], thinking I knew it all,” Favre said. “Of course, I still think I knew it all. But all the things the coaches said to me, I’ve said the same thing … Don’t force it into coverage, or take what they give you, or keep it simple. All those things have been said to me time and time again, and I say the same things, because they’re true.”
THE JADAVEON CLOWNEY DILEMMA. Greg Bedard reports from Columbia, S.C. Clowney, the South Carolina pass rusher, has been on everyone’s radar all season as the prospective top pick of the 2014 draft. And physically, Clowney has all the skills to be the NFL’s next great edge rusher. But an underwhelming final season, including the top-10 showdown against Clemson, will have NFL personnel departments combing his background from now until the draft in May. The key question: How much does he love playing football?
PLAYING IN INTENSE PAIN: WHY DO SOME PLAYERS DO IT? Robert Klemko reports from Houston, where running back Ben Tate seems to feel he has no choice but to play with four cracked ribs; he’s going into his free-agent offseason, and he knows he needs to show teams what a special player he is. Sometimes that means playing hurt. What drives these people? Money? Pride? Both? After Houston’s loss to Jacksonville two weeks ago, Ben’s father called his son to tell him, if you’re hurt, you need to sit down. “I said, ‘Son, it doesn’t look good at all,’ ” Tate Sr. said. “I broke three ribs one time, and every time you take a deep breath it hurts. If you can’t play the right way you don’t even need to be on the field. Who plays with broken ribs anyway?” Tate’s response: “Dad, I’m tougher than you.”
Looking forward to all three. Check back all week for these and other stories.