Tell us again why CBS has this desperate need to find a seat for retired NFL referee Gene Steratore in its Super Bowl LIII broadcast booth Sunday when it already has Jim Nantz and Tony Romo?
“I think it’s a necessity in this day and age,” said CBS NFL producer Jim Rikhoff, specifically about Steratore but also in general about what has become an accepted necessarily evil for any network in the pro football communication business.
Added Nantz: “You know, the way the NFL rules are these days, I almost can't even imagine you could operate your No. 1 show without having someone up there immediately available.”
Steratore, the lead official for last year’s Super Bowl, said this week that if CBS had not come calling, he would have had no problem resuming his on-field job that had reached 35 seasons. Instead, he saw a safe and lucrative landing spot. He isn’t alone.
Credit, and blame, Fox.
Since 2010, when Fox coaxed NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira out of the league office and into its L.A. studio team as the on-call rules explainer, no network has balked at the opportunity to bring a referee onto its roster as a code breaker.
NBC snatched up Terry McAulay for its NFL “Sunday Night” package this past season. ESPN swapped out Jeff Triplette for Gerald Austin on Monday nights. Fox bulked up with Dean Blandino, another VP of NFL rules, joining Pereira and spilling over into college football broadcasts.
But isn’t it counterproductive to have some of the sport’s best officials leave for TV jobs calling for them to scrutinize the people in jobs they just left?
Steratore estimated that rules affecting only 5 to 10% of plays call for a deep explanatory dive. However, he added, “To say we’d all love to simplify everything is great, but there are nuances now with things like the helmet-to-helmet rules, and officials see things in real time that are never easy to apply.”
CBS used to employ ex-ref Mike Carey, who too often was wrong with his takes on how a replay official would rule. Now comes Steratore, and odds are that he’ll be right on his first call.
Really, you can bet on him. The website MyBookie.ag is offering 5/9 odds that Steratore will get his first replay call correct, with 7/5 odds that he won’t.
Steratore, 55, was put to many tests during the Chargers-Baltimore Ravens AFC wild cardgame a month ago. With the Chargers ahead 12-3 in the third quarter, Steratore was summoned to decipher a Derek Watt dive into the end zone. Ruling on the field: Watt was short and juggled the ball, so no TD.
“I think we have a touchdown, Jim,” Steratore told Nantz on the air after watching several replays, believing Watt was over the plane of the goal before the juggle.
After further review, the no-TD decision stood. Steratore and Romo had a laugh over that ruling.
“I can guess,” Romo said, “but we brought you into the booth to tell us the truth.”
“What did they see that we didn’t see?” asked Nantz.
“Maybe it just didn’t jump out enough to them,” Steratore said of the replay officials. “It sure did to me, guys.”
Later in that game, the Chargers were penalized on an onside kick for illegal formation.
“That’s a case where the player broke the receivers’ restraining line prior to meeting the requirement” of the ball having to first touch the ground, Steratore explained.
During the New England-Kansas City AFC title game, Rikhoff said there “was about a 15-minute period when it seemed like it was ‘The Gene Steratore Show,’” as three consecutive calls were disputed, including a muffed punt by the Patriots’ Julian Edelman.
Steratore said he avoids getting any sort of feedback from his former officiating brethren about his TV work, even as his older brother, Tony, remains an NFL back judge and is president of the officiating union.
Even if his wish would be to have no air time during Sunday’s Super Bowl — implying there was no controversy on the field to sort through — Steratore wants to convert any replay review into a teachable moment.
“The complexity of the rules, along with the growth of instant replay and how it’s all dissected, has created this platform. But even this job continues to evolve and can humanize what’s going on,” Steratore said. “I’m hopeful we can peel back the curtain and educate viewers more about all the roles the officials have and point out how good they really are.
“If we have 100 million viewers, and 25% of them really don’t watch a lot of football during the season, they might not all understand the intricacies. So there’s a responsibility from my position to not make things overly complicated, to kind of generalize things, walk everyone through it and maybe accomplish something.”