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Part-time Paycheck & Full-time Scrutiny

It's official: A weekend with NFL referee Tony Corrente

Following NFL referees is a lesson in the game's details and how the league picks apart its crews' performances as much as the teams and the fans do.

September 23, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

In a darkened meeting room at a Jacksonville, Fla., airport hotel, nine men huddle around a video projector, intently studying the screen.

The image of an Oakland Raiders linebacker is the center of attention. He has just made a tackle, but it's what he does next that's being scrutinized.

Acceptable reaction by an excited player? Or taunting?

During a game six days earlier, this NFL officiating crew considered the reaction acceptable. But now a supervisor was telling them they got it wrong. It should have been a 15-yard penalty.

So they play the video over and over again, at least 20 times.

Less than 24 hours later, they will be confronted by a similarly debatable situation -- Jacksonville receiver Dennis Northcutt catches a 10-yard pass over the middle and reacts by quickly spiking the ball.

Under a new rule this season, that's an automatic five-yard penalty.

But after a short conversation, the crew -- was that rebuke still ringing in their ears? -- changes it to a 15-yard taunting call because when the ball bounced up it grazed a defensive player.

And two days later, the NFL, with the benefit of replay, will disagree again.

No taunting. Should have been a five-yard penalty. Another downgrade for one of the league's top crews.

"We drive ourselves crazy on the littlest of details," says one of the men, "but it's simply because we expect the best."

This is a world few people outside the officials themselves ever see. As a general rule, the NFL does not allow its 120 officials to speak to the media.

But last week, this Times reporter was granted rare behind-the-scenes access to the officiating crew working the Atlanta Falcons-Jacksonville Jaguars game -- a group led by the referee who worked the last Super Bowl, Tony Corrente, a La Mirada High social studies teacher.

The access included traveling with Corrente on Saturday and shadowing his crew throughout the weekend, including immediately before and after the game. Then, as the men returned home -- one is an office manager for a Washington, D.C., law firm, another is a pastor who resides in Spokane, Wash. -- it was off to NFL headquarters in New York to observe the league's hair-splitting evaluation of the group's game-day performance.

The NFL is the only major sports league in the U.S. that does not employ full-time officials, but the men who work the games fly first class, eat in first-rate restaurants and are well paid. Depending on experience, officials receive between $2,750 and $8,150 per regular-season game, $5,000 per playoff game, and $10,000 for a Super Bowl, plus potential bonuses.

But for that, the pressure is intense and the scrutiny unbelievable.

As a result, no detail is too small to notice.

It's less than an hour before last Sunday's game and side judge Dyrol Prioleau is warming up right alongside the Jacksonville receivers. In rhythm with their short patterns, he takes two steps forward and two steps back, as if following the play and ready to make a call.

Meanwhile, Corrente, 55, watches the quarterbacks, noticing that the Jaguars' David Garrard has a longer windup than Atlanta's Joey Harrington. Whereas Garrard brings the ball up along his right hip as he drops back to pass, Harrington lifts the snap from center straight up to his chest.

The significance?

Garrard's style makes him more susceptible to getting stripped by a pass rusher raking the ball out of his hand from the side, which is important for a referee to note. After all, it's his job to peel through a pile and figure out who has recovered any loose ball.

And, sure enough, in the second quarter, Garrard fumbles after being hit by Atlanta's Jonathan Babineaux. Fortunately for the Jaguars, center Dennis Norman pounces on the ball and Jacksonville maintains possession.

An easy call because Corrente was ready.

During the week, Corrente works with a total of about 180 students.

On a typical fall Sunday, his audience is closer to 15 million -- though if all goes as planned he and his crew will be seen and heard, but never truly noticed.

If the players get rock star treatment, an official's weekend excursion might be compared to that of a high-level foreign diplomat -- only without any potential for a night on the town.

It's Saturday afternoon, about 24 hours before game time, and no sooner does Corrente step into the lobby of his hotel when the phone rings at the front desk.

It's NFL Security making sure that he has his credentials, review material and a dozen footballs set aside specifically for the kicking game.

These balls, called "K-balls," are sealed in an overnight delivery box behind the desk. At the game, they will have their own security -- someone whose only job is to ensure no one tries to replace one with a ball that has been cooked in a microwave, crunched in a vise or otherwise worn in to make it perform better.

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