The blitz is fierce and well-timed, slamming the quarterback to the ground. As a stadium crowd roars and defenders rise to celebrate, the fallen passer rolls onto his back and looks up at the first person he sees standing over him: a referee.
What does the quarterback say?
“Lying there, their reaction sometimes would be, ‘Man, there’s no way I could feel this terrible after a legal hit,’” said Gene Steratore, a longtime NFL referee who retired in June.
Postponing a rules debate, Steratore would instead ask: “Are you all right?”
The exchange is just one example of the constant, if hidden, interplay between players and officials, a largely overlooked dialogue reserved for the few permitted to step onto an NFL field.
“What happens out there is two human beings talking like any other two people would,” said Steratore, now a sports rules analyst for CBS. “Why should the normal things in life stop just because it’s the middle of an NFL game?”
Indeed, players and officials say an NFL game is a veritable gabfest, most of the chatter having nothing to do with penalties called or not called — or with football at all. An NFL gridiron may be a pressure-filled workplace, but the 22 players and seven officials at its epicenter routinely maintain everyday conversation like employees at any other job.
“Sometimes with the officials, it’s like you’re talking to your neighbors,” Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle said. “You know, ‘Hey, how’s your family? Did you see that baseball game last night?’”
And perhaps not surprisingly, officials can get caught up in the excitement of the action like any spectator. Once, after a spectacular diving reception, Weddle heard a nearby official yelp: “Whoo! What a catch.”
“They have the best seat in the house,” Weddle said, “so they react to a great play like a fan would. It’s never indicative of any favoritism or bias. But they’ll make little comments about what’s going on in front of them.”
Other players have heard similar unfiltered reactions.
“A great play is a great play for everybody on the field,” Philadelphia Eagles guard Brandon Brooks said. “The officials see it and say so. We’re together on that.”
There is an inimitable bond uniting the two groups. On the one hand, the officials are meting out punishment; on the other hand, no game can be played without them.
“I’m always happy to see the officials,” Washington Redskins guard Shawn Lauvao said. “It would be anarchy without them.”
To be sure, once the football is snapped to start a play, the stakes are raised and the atmosphere intensifies. But the communication persists, often with more purpose and urgency.
“A ref will yell, ‘Willie, watch it, don’t push off there,’” Ravens wide receiver Willie Snead IV said, referring to a shove of a defender that might be offensive pass interference.
“He’ll say, ‘I don’t want to have to get you for that next time. Go easy.’ I appreciate the warning.”
Snead also makes a point of introducing himself to each official before a game and to memorize the names of those he does not know.
“That way I never say, ‘Hey, ref,’ which is disrespectful,” Snead said. “I mean, they know my name, right?”
Several players said Snead’s experience was typical: Game officials are continually advising them how to avoid penalties — telling defensive backs to stop grabbing at receivers, cautioning the offensive linemen to get closer to the line of scrimmage to avoid an illegal formation penalty, even reminding the kickers not to move before the snap.
“It’s called preventative officiating,” said Dean Blandino, a Fox Sports rules analyst who until last year oversaw officiating for the NFL. “The last thing anyone wants is a flag every other play. If you communicate, you can maintain control and let the players play, too.”
Before every game, the officials and players spend hours studying each other.
As part of their weekly pregame preparation, players are briefed on which crew of officials — there are 17 — will be working their next game. Coaches will delineate the crew’s tendencies; the group might be inclined to call defensive holding, for instance, or be especially strict about intentional grounding. Players are sometimes tested on the officials’ leanings.
At the same time, the officials are watching hours of videotape of the teams they are about to supervise, scouting the teams’ propensities when it comes to formations and other football components, like trick plays. Good officiating requires split-second reactions and decisions, and the advance video work makes the officials better prepared for what they are likely to see.
During warm-ups on game day, players and officials will often informally mingle on the field. It’s a chance for players to sound out the officials on certain maneuvers and techniques.
Deion Sanders, the Hall of Fame cornerback, was renowned for openly quizzing several officials about what he could get away with while covering receivers — and what would draw a penalty.
“Can I do this? What about that?” Sanders would ask, demonstrating various tactics.
The familiarity between the officials and the players does not prevent a certain amount of arguing when a penalty flag flutters to the ground — or when one does not. But in most cases, the dispute does not last long. Football isn’t baseball; there is a clock running.
Joe Theismann, the former Washington quarterback who won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award in 1983, recalled a time when he thought he had spotted a foul by a defensive player at the line of scrimmage. He turned to complain to referee Ben Dreith, who disagreed. There were no replay reviews back then, but Theismann knew that the officials went over tapes of their games days later.
“You’re going to look at a replay and know you’re wrong,” Theismann recalled telling Dreith.
“Maybe,” he recalled Dreith answering, “but here’s what I know for sure. If you don’t get the next snap off in 15 seconds, you’re going to get a five-yard penalty. And that won’t be very good for you, either.”
Theismann laughed as he retold the story.
“I mean, a lot of that stuff was fun,” he said. “I’m sure it still is.”
Steratore, though, pointed out that officials had to be mindful of when and how to interact: The seconds after a punishing, if legal, sack was never a time for levity or a quarrel.
“Quarterbacks are human; it hurts,” he said. “But after they got up and I knew they were OK, I might sneak it in real quick that it was a legal hit.
“Some agreed and some definitely did not. But I would always tell every quarterback that I was there to protect them. I think they heard that.”
A month after he retired, Steratore discovered that the communication between player and official can outlast the games. He walked to his mailbox and found a handwritten letter from Peyton Manning.
“He told me how much he enjoyed the games I was also in,” Steratore said. “That’s when you realize what a great experience we all share.”