Best of Times, Worst of Times

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:

Via Twitter

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.

Via email:

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.

* * *

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.

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390 comments
toadworth
toadworth

Dear Peter:

Suck it.


Josh McCown

Mood_Indigo
Mood_Indigo

Frank Gore's greatness

Savor on

For one more season

willisdownsouth
willisdownsouth

If you actually watched a South Carolina football game, you can clearly see how teams game planned away from Clowney's side of the field. The SC DT Kelcy Quarles will be taken somewhere in the top 3 rounds, most likely because of the way teams double teamed Clowney. He also had a solid outing against Clemson. Not sure what's so underwhelming there.

aeb0507
aeb0507

Well peter King, you blew it again for the monday matchup. You like Tony Romp over Josh McCown....really

akdonner2
akdonner2

My question is why is shanahan even considered a great coach. He was terrible in Oakland and Washington and he was gifted 2 super bowls by elway and Davis. After elway retired the struggles began and slowly but surely, the broncos began to resemble what the redskins are and what the raiders were. Completely overrated coach.

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

Greg Bedard reports from Columbia, S.C. Clowney, the South Carolina pass rusher, has been on everyone’s radar all season


Including, apparently, the SC highway patrol.  At 110 mph.  If only his motor revved like that on the field.

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

In 14 games, NFL teams scored 88 touchdowns, the most on any day in the 94-year history of the league.


Was it the most per game?  Comparing it to 1960 when the league had half as many games is lazy.   A technically "true" statement that is nonetheless potentially misleading in the implications a reader might derive from it.

Sabahtwit
Sabahtwit

Shanahan played RG3 2nd 1/2 Seattle game and This Year bc of RG 3& OUT's INSECURITY about KC taking his job AND Snyder ENABLED him. It is pretty clear that Shanahan may be the HEAD of the Redskins, but RG3 is the NECK, and he makes the HEAD turn Anyway he wants it to. Please don't blame coach on this debacle.

BrianHayden
BrianHayden

I never thought I'd say these words, but "your link is to the wrong LaVon Brazill touchdown"

BillyG
BillyG

Tom Coughlin has been head coaching in the NFL for 18 seasons.He has won a playoff game in only 5 of 18 them.The 2 seasons he won the SB, he was either a 9-7 lousy division “winner” or a 10-6 wild card.In each of his 2 SB runs he was the beneficiary of some of the most fortuitous plays and calls of all time (including the playoffs leading to the SB).In his last 5 years he is 41-36 AND missed the playoffs 4 of the last 5 seasons…even though he is coaching one of the highest payroll teams, with one of the highest paid (although nowhere near best) QB’s.Two questions…1) should he be fired after this season (or graciously allowed to “retire”), and 2), is there any possibility he DESERVES to make the HOF?

srkusa
srkusa

The team to watch is the Patriots - last time they pulled these late game wins by playing the full 60 minutes they went all the way and won the super bowl. Best damn coached and quarterbacked team in the history of the NFL based on their consistent winning record over the last decade and their desire, determination and dedication to winning no matter who the opponent is - they do just enough and you can say they got lucky on some plays but let's not forget they capitalized on them!

DeeEmm1
DeeEmm1

Senator Murphy was clearly going to discuss Pokemon X and Y and the upcoming Z version. Get with the times Peter.

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

The refs are spectacularly bad. Could there be a Tim Donaghy in the ranks? Just wondering if anyone else has had this thought. Because the kinds of mistakes being made are all but inexplicable. 

Stevo1
Stevo1

So, who is going to replace Shannie?   Can't imagine anyone decent taking the job.  Where's Joe Gibbs when we need him?  Again, that is.  And where will Shannie and his clone end up?  Hopefully out of football.  He never should have let RGIII on the field after the first half of last year's playoff against Seattle.  And he never should have let RGIII near the field until the 7th or 8th game this year.  He's done.

drudown
drudown

Although Edelman does not cite Ray Kroc for his paraphrase "when you’re green, you grow; when you’re ripe, you rot"…great quote.

Rama
Rama

Excuse me. The injury of the year award belongs to Aaron Rodgers. No comparison between an oft injured tight end, who Brady can win without vs Rodgers who is arguably the best player in the league.

SemperFiDTM
SemperFiDTM

So vicious hits that are legal in the NFL that end careers are OK....but fighting in hockey is "revolting". Very Costas-esqe of you Petey, keep riding that arbitrary-moral high horse! (For the uninformed, Bob Costas is the self-appointed moral compass of the nation)

blorjr
blorjr

The football gods got even with Tomlin for his actions in Baltimore .

cgladish
cgladish

Come on, no mention of the MLS cup at all?  An amazing game happened in front of an incredible crowd this weekend for the MLS championship, you figure there might be a sentence or two about it.

Paul_Conrad
Paul_Conrad

Peter King's plantation owner mentality is on full display with his attacks on Jadeveon Clowney.  King and his ilk profit off the free labor of college kids, and feel the need to trash any player who challenges the current billion dollar scam that is the NCAA's student athlete. Peter King is obviously protective of his income source. It's just too bad his nonsense "love of football" doesn't translate into much compassion for the people football exploits.

Frotoon
Frotoon

"a church-fart performance in the desolate pews at FedEx Field"

That's a tacky analogy. Low class.

RayIsBipolar
RayIsBipolar

Was Polamalu getting ran over by Chuck Clay for his 2nd TD vintage as well?

George
George

Niners 19 - Seattle 17


- Sea-hens exPOSED aGAIN!  Can't win on the ROAD!!

They laid an egg and lost the GAME!


The Super Bowl (if the hens even GET there!) is not being played in their noise-nest, but instead at a neutral site

 - where they will be exPOSED in the season finale!

;D

YinkaDoubleDare
YinkaDoubleDare

Really wish the Bears had found a way to retain Toub. It wasn't just Hester, the Bears were good at kick/punt returning in general with Toub, and were one of the top teams in special teams DVOA at Football Outsiders year in and year out.

granite.burner
granite.burner

No mention of the first game changing mis-call in the Patriots game.  That quick whistle while the player was still in mid-air took away a Pats' fumble recovery and gave Cleveland their first score.  Instead of the Patriots having their first drive in a scoreless game it gave the Browns three points and ensured that the Pats were behind before they ever got to call a play.  Blowing the whistle while the player is still upright shouldn't happen on an open field tackle, and this was an egregious example of why not.


LisaJDarln
LisaJDarln

I just want to point out that Brooks Orpik, although he is a hard-hitting, tough defenseman, is NOT an instigator, which you repeated several times. In fact, he has received only a handful of fighting majors in his career and none in the past five years. When a Pittsburgh Tribune Review reporter asked 15 Penguins players if fighting in hockey should be eliminated, only Orpik said yes.


RescuedfromESPN
RescuedfromESPN

Here's what I got with my algorithm:

1.DEN (.797)

2.SEA (.786)

3. NE (.713)

4. NO (.711)

5. CAR (.686)

bserious
bserious

The Patriots may well be, but they're not as overrated as people who try to get free advertising by putting links to their sites in a comment section.

blynder
blynder

@akdonner2

Denver fan here.  I think of Shanny as "flawed" like any human being.  He never did a good job with a defensive coordinator (although Haslett did have his moments) and he needed to either A) evaluate talent and be a GM or B) be a coach; and run the team.  He wasn't good  both.  I was surprised when Washington took RG III TBH; he didn't fit that mold of a Shanny QB and I think we're seeing that now.  Shanny wants an Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Jay Cutler type.  Certainly he did get "help" from Elway and T.Davis; but he also did some good stuff as the H.C. on those SB teams (finding and utilizing T.D., Shannon Sharpe, Rod Smith, Keeping Romo in line, working w/Alex Gibbs and keeping the ling going, etc.)  So I'll agree that he may not be "great" but he's certainly not garbage either.

GlennMiller
GlennMiller

@BillyG I would really like to hear what these "fortuitous plays" throughout the playoffs were.  And in case you aren't aware yet, the NFL is now a salary cap league.  Which means there aren't any "high payroll" teams.  You must be thinking of baseball, which means you have no clue what you're saying.  Coughlin has had success everywhere he has coached.  As far as your stat of missing the playoffs 4 of the last 5 years - why that arbitrary number of years??  How about this stat - Coughlin has won the super bowl in 2 of the last 7 years, which no other head coach can say.  You sound like a typical fan that never played football and really doesn't understand the game.  Go back to your mom's basement.

ILoveMyWife
ILoveMyWife


Sounds like Snyder is the one forcing RGIII down Shanahan's throat ala Bud Adams with Vince Young and Jeff Fisher.

RockOfGib
RockOfGib

@Rama I think he was talking about season-ending injuries. Rodgers isn't out for the year.

SemperFiDTM
SemperFiDTM

@Rama If he played for New England then yes it would definitely be injury of the year. Welcome to Bradyland - ahem - mmqb.com

russel.mcgee
russel.mcgee

@SemperFiDTM To compare the violence of any sport with the institutionalized thuggery of the NHL shows that NHL fans deserve the goons that put on the fights for them--but not in the playoffs for some reason. The fans are goons themselves.


JPM
JPM

And who appointed you?

drudown
drudown

@Paul_Conrad


Taken to its illogical conclusion, you conflate grown men receiving up to $50mm+ GUARANTEED to play a game as (ahem) some form of "slavery"? Sure, right. 


As for Clowney, he doesn't seem to display the zeal or will to excel this year that a GM and/or owner might see as a condition precedent to making him the #1 pick, i.e., in terms of a dispassionate risk/reward business decision analysis. 


Duh.

George
George

@Frotoon not if you're a latte-sippin' beer-suckin' no-neck who farts in church!

:D

Dr.RosenRosen
Dr.RosenRosen

@George First, I think your Shift and Caps-Lock key is broken causing random words to be capitalized for no reason.  Also, your period key is spitting out exclamation points.  You should contact IT and get that fixed quickly before you post again.  You don't want people to think you're an idiot typing nonsense.


Second, the 'Hawks are 5-2 on the road.  They lost both games by a total of 8 points.  I wouldn't call them "exPOSED" or POSED or whatever word you decide to capitalize next.  If you want to capitalize a word, call them GOOD.

Marima
Marima

Yep.  This conveniently gets left out in the 'Refs wanted the Pats to win' conversation.  Plus, on that PI call, how come no one mentions the all important fact that the defender never turned to look for the ball?  If he had ever attempted to turn his head, the flag most likely doesn't get thrown. 

ILoveMyWife
ILoveMyWife

Did you read the article? Peter King specifically mentioned that Orpik would rather there not be fighting. That way he can instigate with impunity.

Rama
Rama

With Rodgers in pain last week, he might get shutdown for the year. I hope Peter then would revise his statement.

ILoveMyWife
ILoveMyWife


Really? Peter's bias is way in favor of Peyton Manning over Tom Brady.

SemperFiDTM
SemperFiDTM

@JPM I appointed myself a commenter on this board. Just like you. Oh, and if you are really Bob Costas, I loved loved LOVED watching you wet your pants when you had Vince McMahon on your show.

sitefix
sitefix

Finally someone says it! How many times have the Pats been called for PI for doing exactly the same thing: not turning to play the ball? I can tell you: plenty. That's why that call was made.

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