The life of an NFL officiating crew: Fly into a city, work a game, go home. Right? Think again. Go behind the scenes with an NFL crew for an exclusive look at what goes into the countless hours of preparation prior to kickoff at storied Lambeau Field.
By Jeffrey Stern
Three tables in the Lambeau Room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Green Bay, Wis., are arranged to form a “U.” Ted Campbell, a video operator on game days, prepares the projector while crew chief Jerome Boger walks around the tables, dropping handfuls of miniature candy bars at each place. “Entices them to stay,” Boger says with a smile.
It is 3:07 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009, and it is a workday for Boger’s NFL officiating crew. In addition to Boger and the other onfield officials — umpire Carl Paganelli, linesman John Schleyer, side judge Joe Larrew, line judge Gary Arthur, field judge Doug Rosenbaum and back judge Tony Steratore — the crew includes Campbell and replay official Mark Burns. Also on hand is Jerry Markbreit, the legendary retired referee who now serves as a trainer to white hats such as Boger. The next day Boger’s crew will officiate the game between the host Packers and visiting Detroit Lions. This day they will look at film and review procedures for the days ahead.
One by one, the crew members arrive, greeting each other warmly before taking a seat. Some look at personal communication devices to check the progress of college games. “Notre Dame’s down seven to USC late in the game but they’re driving,” Burns reports. “Did I hear Purdue knocked off Ohio State?” Rosenbaum asks.
Boger collects receipts for previously incurred expenses. He will turn them in for reimbursement. Some of the officials ask their crewmates if they have tickets to spare for upcoming games the crew will work. Each official gets two free tickets per game. Steratore’s teenaged son, Matthew, made the trip with his father and will take advantage of that perk on Sunday.
Well before the scheduled 3:30 start time, everyone is in his place and ready for the pregame meeting to begin. Everyone, that is, except Schleyer, a Pennsylvania resident whose arrival has been delayed due to flight problems. There aren’t a lot of options when it comes to flying into the smallest city in the NFL. Toss in a freak snowstorm that hit the East Coast and a late arrival is understandable.
A travel schedule is projected onto the screen in the front of the room. Steratore handles arrangements for the crew and he seeks confirmation that the information is correct. One schedule indicates departures from Green Bay after the game. None of the outbound flights is before 5 p.m. No official may schedule a flight less than five hours after the scheduled start time of a game. That discourages rushing a game along in order to catch a flight.
A second slide shows when the officials will leave for next week’s game. It won’t be a normal week for the crew — its next game will be in London as part of the NFL’s effort to build a fan base overseas. In a space of seven days, the crew will work in Lambeau Field, one of America’s most iconic stadia, then Wembley Stadium, one of Europe’s most famous sporting venues.
It is week six of the NFL season. The crew received its first four assignments before the season. Subsequent assignments come in four-week blocks through the league office.
Boger runs down the timetable for the next morning: The devotional service will be at 7:30 a.m., followed by breakfast at 8. The shuttle for the stadium leaves at 9.
Each network has its own method of handling TV timeouts so the crew already knows how many media timeouts will occur and roughly when to expect them. Tomorrow’s game will be on Fox. Steratore is pleased to see that former defensive lineman Tony Siragusa will be a sideline reporter on Sunday.“We were at Kansas City and I was on the endline,” Steratore relates. “And this guy in the stands is just riding me like crazy.” During a break in the action, Steratore sidled up to Siragusa and kiddingly asked the announcer to pinpoint the noisy fan and ask him to pipe down.
Others in the room chuckle as Steratore continues.“‘Goose’ walks up to the stands, right toward the guy, and says, ‘Lay off him. That’s my cousin.’ Shut the guy down right there,” Steratore says.
Another slide indicates the positions of the players whose uniforms will be randomly inspected for silicone or other illegal substances. Paganelli’s duties include performing one check on four players per team before the game and another four at halftime. The crew also must check to see which defensive players have green dots on their helmets. Those markings identify the players whose helmets are equipped with speakers that allow coaches to communicate with them. Only one player with the dot may be on the field at one time.
Because a ceremonial coin will be used for the flip, Boger will have to carry a spare with him in case the game goes to overtime. Both the coin used for the pregame flip and the ball used for the opening kickoff will be given to a ball handler and will be auctioned for charity.
A few minutes past 4 p.m., it’s time to watch film. The league officiating department sent to Boger its regular set of plays from the previous week along with one devoted to plays that were reviewed via instant replay. Additionally, there are two films concentrating on pass interference, illegal contact and other pass-related fouls.
The voice of NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira fills the room as the film begins. The first two clips are light-hearted in nature, one showing an official being hugged by a player for a call that went the player’s way and a second showing an official’s flag landing on a player instead of the ground.
Next up is a punt on which a block in the back is highlighted. Paganelli initiates a discussion on coverage because it isn’t obvious which official is best positioned to see such a foul. “On that play, there’s no way you can turn and clear the line that quickly to see it,” Arthur tells Paganelli, “especially if there are still guys tied up at the line that you have to watch.” After further discussion, the crew agrees the short wings, Arthur or Schleyer, would be responsible for coverage on that type of action.
Other plays on the film result in Boger and his crew expressing either admiration of or empathy for the officials involved. The calls are incredibly close; in some cases, even repeated views in slow motion don’t provide a definitive answer. An example: A receiver gets his hands on a pass, is hit while he is turning to move upfield and loses possession as he goes to the ground. The call can go one of three ways: The runner’s down by contact before he lost possession. He fumbled before he was down. Or he never had possession to begin with. The covering official ruled down by contact, a call Pereira supports.
There are two more fumble plays, one of which blows a long-held mantra out of the water and another bringing a reminder from Pereira. In the first case a runner, untouched by an opponent, hit the ground and coughed up the ball. It is a situation in which, under NFL rules and contrary to popular belief, the ground can cause a fumble. In the second, no official blows his whistle because none can see the ball. A player who committed a personal foul in such a case would not be excused because of that. “There will be 30 plays a game on which we won’t have any whistle at all. Remember that the whistle doesn’t kill the play,” Pereira says,“it’s the ruling that kills the play.”
It is during the latter discussion that Schleyer slips into the room. He looks none the worse for wear despite the travel woes and he nods hellos to those in the room who quietly greet him.
In between films, Boger and Larrew check their communication devices and note the arrival of an e-mail from another official. There is bad news on the personal front for several of their peers. One man’s son has been diagnosed with lymphoma and there have been two deaths among officials’ families. Larrew tells the crew about an especially sad case, in which the deceased was a mother with young children. “I know his crew is donating some money,” he says. “Do we want to take up a collection too?” There is universal agreement.
The second film is narrated by Dean Blandino, the league’s instant replay consultant. Neely Dunn, a retired NFL official and now a regional supervisor, narrates the two films dedicated to pass plays.
During the film, a new vocabulary emerges. It is a combination of initialisms and aphorisms, a sort of verbal shorthand. What seems like the smashing together of random letters — DPI, OPI, ICT — is actually code used by officials on foul reports and in communicating to each other, in order, defensive pass interference, offensive pass interference and illegal contact.
Other terms are heard repeatedly. “No smoke” indicates no action by the players to warrant a flag. “Healthy five” is a measurement the league wants officials to abide in determining if a defender has contacted a receiver beyond the allowed five yards off the line of scrimmage. “Line feed”is the view from a camera positioned parallel with the line of scrimmage.
Boger accesses more film on his laptop, using an Xbox-style controller, to call up plays involving Green Bay and Detroit in previous games.
It is noted that Detroit center Dominic Raiola has a penchant for keeping one hand on the football but jabbing the other forward before the snap. At first blush it appears he may be pointing out blocking assignments, but it looks to the crew like an attempt to draw the defense into the neutral zone. “Dominic and I go back a ways,” Paganelli chimes in. “I’ll talk to him about it.”
The deep officials note that Green Bay’s safeties and cornerbacks provide receivers a substantial cushion at the start of a play. That is a huge departure from the past, when the defenders would line up directly across from the opponents. The answer is that Dom Capers, the Packers’new defensive coordinator, has instituted a new scheme. The officials nod in understanding, remembering that strategy from Capers’ days as a head coach.
It is 6:08 p.m. when the film session ends. Paganelli, the crew’s social chairman, announces that the crew will have dinner at a pizza parlor that is walking distance from the hotel.
There are 13 for dinner, which consists of six large pizzas and three baskets of wings. The group is too large for one table in the small dining area, so four occupy one high-top and the rest settle at a larger table. For the majority, the beverage of choice is water. League rules prohibit consumption of alcohol 48 hours before game time.
Markbreit is at the table with Steratore and his son. With a little prodding, Steratore is able to get Markbreit to talk about one of the most notable games of Markbreit’s illustrious career: A Green Bay-Chicago tilt in 1986 when Markbreit ejected the Packers’ Charles Martin for a vicious assault on Bears quarterback Jim McMahon. Most at the table have heard the story before, but no matter; it’s a great story and Markbreit tells it vividly.
After the last of the pizza is consumed, the crew heads back to the hotel. They are on their own until the next morning.
Sunday morning dawns sunny but chilly. It will warm up to the mid-50s before the game is over, but the crew has already decided to wear long-sleeved shirts and black pants during the game. Onfield attire is left to each crew, with the proviso that the black pants cannot be worn with short sleeves. Boger’s crew is not one of those that has been chosen to occasionally wear the garish orange shirts some crews are wearing in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the American Football League. However, the crew will wear pink wristbands and pink-trimmed hats as part of the league’s nod to Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Back in the Lambeau Room, Burns sits in the front of the room. On the small table in front of him are some notes and a Bible. Burns not only produces the material for the devotional services he leads, he provides it to every crew in the league. In years past, crews would find a church — usually but not always Catholic, regardless of the faith of crewmembers. But when rental cars stopped being a part of the officials’ benefits, church visits were replaced by the devotionals in the hotel.
The theme of Burns’ service is communication. He relates the four ways God communicates with His believers — through His word, through each other, through circumstance and through direct communication — to how officials communicate with each other. Burns notes how a whisper can be more important than a shout and notes the benefits of non-verbal communication. It is the perfect marriage of scripture and mechanics. Campbell brings the service to a close with a prayer.
The breakfast buffet is bustling, and the officials are the only ones in the place not wearing Packer attire. One fan stops by the table and says cheerfully, “Have a good game today.” Boger smiles and says thanks. Having eaten, the officials return to their rooms and prepare to leave the hotel.
As Boger packs his laptop, he notes that the message light on the room phone is not blinking. If it were, it would likely be notification that his crew would be subject to a random drug test upon arrival at the stadium. The crew has already been tested once and can probably expect another before the season is over.
Three hours before kickoff, it’s a short trip on the bus from the hotel to Lambeau. The officials travel light, each employing one black roller
bag. They wear sport coats; five in the party are wearing ties. Most of the officials have computer cases or briefcases and all have their names and uniform numbers stitched into the luggage.
Upon arrival, the officials disembark and stand their cases in a line on the sidewalk. A policeman with his canine partner walks around the bus, then up and down the row of baggage. With no contraband found, the officials are escorted up a ramp and through a series of doorways to their locker room.
The officials’ room is not overly spacious but it is plenty comfortable. A dozen dressing compartments occupy two walls. On a third wall there is a counter, its top covered with plates of snacks and a warming tray. Above the counter is a television, tuned to ESPN.
Even though kickoff is almost three hours away, there is no time to be idle.
• ARTHUR visits the Fox production trailer to confirm the time. From that point on, whatever time Fox says it is, it is.
• BOGER meets with security personnel, who tell him how they will react if a fan runs onto the field or objects are thrown onto the playing surface.
• PAGANELLI and Rosenbaum check the game balls. Three dozen balls to be used for scrimmage plays are inspected and marked with an ink stamp. In addition, a dozen balls shipped directly from Wilson and emblazed with the letter “K” arrive. Those are used only for kicking plays.
• SCHLEYER meets with the chain crew, whose locker room is across the hall.
• STERATORE talks to the men operating the game and play clocks.
• BURNS goes onto the field to inspect the replay booths and talk to those responsible for them.
• BOGER checks in with the sound technician, who provides the microphone he will use during the game. It is the first time that Boger has stepped onto Lambeau Field. He marvels at the names of the past Packers who have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and those whose numbers have been retired.
• LARREW and Schleyer visit the Detroit locker room and Rosenbaum and Arthur talk to Green Bay coaches. The Packer representative tells the officials who the captains will be, gives them a head’s up that the punter is left-footed and that there is no third quarterback (special rules go into effect if a team uses more than two quarterbacks in a game).
The coach also asks the crew to be vigilant about chop blocks and late hits, something the coaches have seen while scouting Detroit on film. Apparently such advisories do not go away when you reach the highest level of football. Nor do trick plays. Larrew describes a somewhat elaborate fake punt the Lions will employ during the game. The crew is prepared for it. (So were the Packers. The play lost a yard.)
In addition to the fouls he calls, each official tracks different information on his game card. Boger, for instance, jots down the times TV timeouts occur. Paganelli records the numbers of players wearing eligible numbers who will take up ineligible’s positions during kick plays. Other data, such as how long injury timeouts lasted, how many game balls were lost in the stands and other minutiae is tracked and reported to the league.
At 11:47 a.m., the Lions are notified they have two minutes to report to the field for introductions. Three minutes later, Green Bay receives similar notice. The national anthem is played at 11:58. And at 12:02 p.m., Detroit kicker Jason Hanson’s foot meets the ball and the game is under way.
The game begins in fits and starts. That’s thanks to the teams, who commit fouls on three of the first four plays. That includes a holding penalty that wipes out a 99-yard touchdown return of the opening kick. Markbreit, observing the action live in the press box and viewing a monitor at his station, nods agreement on all of the calls.
By the time the game is over, the crew will assess 19 penalties for 170 yards. Most are obvious and are beyond dispute, although Boger is questioned by Detroit Coach Jim Schwartz as to why a flag is not thrown when one of his receivers sustains a hard hit from a Green Bay defender. It is the complaint of a frustrated coach whose team is decimated by injuries and is already out of playoff contention. It is silly to expect Boger to do anything about it considering he was 40 or more yards away. But such is the life of the man wearing the white hat.
The Packers win handily, 26-0. The crew returns to the locker room to shower and analyze its performance. The warming tray contains hamburgers and that Wisconsin standby, bratwurst.
After showering, the crew dresses and grabs something to eat. A man enters the locker room and hands each official two DVDs of the game (end zone view and line feed). Most of the officials will watch at least part of the game on the plane ride. Arthur will watch it and, by noon the next day, send an e-mail to crewmates with observations and notes on plays that need attention.
Each official takes out a penalty report form and, in between bites, writes as Schleyer calls out the time of each foul, which officials called it and the nature of the infraction. It is a return to officiating’s Morse code: “One forty-six, umpire, FMM, Detroit” translates to a facemask foul called by Paganelli. There are several FSTs (false starts), a couple DOFs (defense offside) and two UNRs (unnecessary roughness; both are on Green Bay, despite the Packer coach’s observation that the Lions had shown a penchant for such rough stuff).
With the Fox coverage over, the TV is switched to CBS and the game between New England and Tennessee. At first it seems the reception is out of whack. But it quickly becomes apparent it is snowing like crazy in Foxboro.
“I feel sorry for those guys,”Arthur says, surveying the scene.
Steratore’s face breaks out in a huge smile. “That’s my brother’s game!” he exclaims, referring to referee Gene Steratore. “And to think he gave me a hard time about having to go to Green Bay in October.”
The crew finishes its paperwork and heads for the bus. A police cruiser provides an escort to the airport, but another motorist is not impressed. She runs a red light and squeezes her car between the police car and the bus, causing the bus driver to slam on his brakes and swerve to the right. A bag hits the floor but everyone is OK.
The bus arrives at Austin Straubel Airport without further incident. The officials get off the bus and head to their respective gates, heading home with the taste of Wisconsin brats and a job well done in their mouths.
Jeffrey Stern is Referee’s senior editor.
Meet the Crew
Who are the men that makeup Jerome Boger’s crew? Meet the crew along with position, hometown, year entered the league and occupation.
Commercial insurance underwriter
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Federal probation officer
Commercial printing company president
Supply company co-owner
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