Sunday’s Most Important Unknown
Over the top? Maybe, but there’s no denying umpire Bill Schuster will have his hands full when the Seahawks and 49ers meet for the NFC title game. How will he and the rest of the officiating crew handle the chippiness between enemies?
DENVER — Two storylines on the best championship weekend I can recall:
Sunday is a very big day for the officials.
Ever hear of Bill Schuster? Insurance man from just outside Rochester, N.Y. Everyman type. Likes going to a bar in his hometown called “The Pigpen.” Schuster, 55, is going to be the umpire in the San Francisco-Seattle game. It’s a big job. Seattle and San Francisco are to the NFL today what Pittsburgh and Baltimore were over the past half-decade: UFC combatants.
I got to know Schuster a bit as a member of the Gene Steratore crew for my week-in-the-life-of-an-officiating-crew series in December. Steratore and Schuster will be together in Seattle on Sunday, working the game on an all-star crew with five other men. (Tony Corrente has Manning-Brady XV here, where I’ll be.) I bring up the NFC game because you saw and I saw what happened in Carolina last Sunday. I thought the chippiness and the non-calls on said chippiness were black eyes for the league. The crew in Charlotte swallowed its whistles on taunting call after taunting call, on a clear and purposeful head-butt … and called a silly unnecessary roughness penalty on Carolina safety Mike Mitchell that enabled San Francisco to kick a field goal.
Both crews are in tough spots Sunday, because there’s been far too much chatter in the press and public about the subpar year for the zebras. I think Steratore’s crew will have it much tougher. The Niners and Seahawks are championship woofers and trash-talkers. The players on each team will be out, early, to draw lines in the FieldTurf. You saw it last week in Carolina, and you saw it in Seattle, when a bunch of Seahawks had to be separated from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in pregame warmups.
Schuster is a barrel-chested, physical man—umpires need to be physical guys, because they’re the ones in the middle of the most scrums at the line of scrimmages and where the plays end—and I can tell you this: He’s not going to take any crap. In Chicago, the game that culminated my week with the crew, Schuster was aggressive at breaking up little scrums, jumping into one so quickly and slipping on the bog that was Soldier Field’s turf that he strained a hammy.
Schuster’s a football guy, a fast-talker, a needler, not afraid of the biggest players, and he makes quick decisions. I saw it for four quarters in Chicago. After the game I covered, he said in the officials’ locker room: “I loved it out there. Mud and glory. Classic football. Like what John Madden said: ‘Nice to get back to real football for a change.’ From hash to hash, nothing but loose divots. They were coming up like briefcases.”
It wouldn’t surprise me if Steratore does more than exchange pleasantries with Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll before this game. I wouldn’t be surprised if he warns each about the short leash their teams will be on. One of the things I learned about officiating in my week with the Steratore crew is that he and Schuster won’t let problems stew. They’ll get in the middle of them and try to defuse them as soon as they see something. In this game, this crew needs to send the message that taunting and over-aggressive scrums will draw flags, and those flags will continue as long as the juvenile behavior does.
Personally, I hope Steratore enforces what I’ve just described. On Sunday night, we should be talking football, not bush-league ranting and cheap shots ignored by the officials.
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Some context, please, on 10-11.
That is Peyton Manning’s career playoff record. You know that. And we’ve seen some fourth-quarter stinkers (or, maybe better put, some golden chances he blew), most notably the Super Bowl interception by Tracy Porter that clinched the Saints’ win four years ago. I don’t expect a little chart will change the minds of those of you who call Manning a choking dog, but here it is anyway.
Manning’s postseason stat line, compared to some other Super Bowl-era quarterbacks who share Peyton’s place among the top quarterbacks of all time:
|Playoff W-L||Super Bowl W-L||Comp. %||TD-INT||Rating|
Just as you can’t tell the story of John Elway’s 2-3 Super Bowl record without context—the Denver defense allowed 45.3 points per game in the three Super Bowl losses—you can’t tell the story of Manning in the postseason without context. Stats shouldn’t tell the whole story—in anything. And Manning has a bunch of throws in the postseason he’d like to have back. What great quarterbacks don’t? He deserves to take hits for some of his postseason failings, to be sure. But in that, he’s not alone.