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Gene Steratore, catch rule controversy extraordinaire, retires from NFL officiating

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Here’s everything you need to know about the career of the ref who measured a first down with an index card in 2017.

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If you didn’t know who Gene Steratore was before the Cowboys beat the Raiders in Week 15 of the 2017 season, you do now. He’s the NFL official who famously used an index card to measure a crucial first down for the Cowboys.

That’s not the only high-profile play the longtime NFL ref was at the center of. Steratore was involved in not one, but two memorable and controversial non-catch rulings. So maybe it’s fitting that he is leaving the NFL just months after a new catch rule was implemented that will seek to remove the drama Steratore was unfortunate enough to find himself in the middle of often.

On Friday, he informed the NFL that he would retire from officiating.

Up next for Steratore will be a job with CBS where he’s joining as a rules expert, according to Cameron Filipe of Football Zebras.

The last assignment for Steratore was the Philadelphia Eagles’ 41-33 win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 52. It wasn’t an easy game to call, but the officials got a pair of razor-close plays called correctly and saved the NFL from another catch rule disaster.

Steratore is also an NCAA basketball referee within the Big Ten. He’s officiated the NCAA tournament, and he’s reffed 12 different playoff games in the NFL. He was also chosen as an alternate for Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season. But Super Bowl LII marked the first time Steratore actually officiated the championship game.

To be chosen to ref a Super Bowl, an official has to be at the top of his or her game. Unless an official is ranked in the NFL’s top tier, which is based on their accuracy and performance over the course of the season, they’re not even considered. Football Zebras, a site dedicated to NFL officiating, projected that Steratore would be selected in part because the league gives priority to officials who had never worked a championship.

Here’s everything you need to know about the career of Gene Steratore:

He officiated the play that sparked the great catch debate

It was Week 1 of the 2010 season, and Steratore’s crew was assigned to the Lions’ clash with the Bears in Chicago. That game yielded one of the most controversial calls of all time, and one that’s at the center of the enduring question of what is and what is not a catch in the National Football League.

The Lions were trailing 19-14 late in the fourth quarter. Johnson hauled in a touchdown pass from Shaun Hill with 31 seconds left in the game that would have sealed the win for the Lions. Officials ruled that it wasn’t a catch because Johnson didn’t control it to the ground.

The play gave life to the controversial phrase “complete the process of the catch,” and was one of the first sequences that built pressure for a new catch rule.

Dez caught it ... or did he?

Steratore just happened to be involved in not one, but two of the most infamous non-catch rulings in league history. He was also in on a play that Cowboys fans will never, ever get over: the Dez Bryant non-catch in divisional play against the Packers following the 2014 season.

Dez did not, in fact, catch it. It was the proper application of a deeply flawed rule. A player has to control the ball all the way through the catch when going to the ground, and Bryant did not.

According to the new catch rule passed in March, Dez did catch it.

Cowboys get a first down with a paper-thin margin

Fans could never forget Steratore after this season, when he made waves by using an index card to measure a first down for the Cowboys against the Raiders in Week 15. It was a Dak Prescott quarterback sneak on a crucial fourth-and-1 that was close — too close to call without a prop.

Steratore said after the game that he didn’t need the index card to make the first down call. He just used it to confirm that he had judged the position of the ball correctly.

“Didn’t use the card to make the final decision,” Steratore said, via Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “The final decision was made visually. The card was used (as) nothing more than a reaffirmation of what was visually done.”

After the game, the league asked officials to not use anything other than markers and the good old eye test to measure first downs. But what Steratore did was within the rules.

Officiating is a family affair

Steratore isn’t the only referee in his family. He isn’t even the only NFL official in his family.

His brother,

  • co-owns a janitorial supply company
  • also officiates NCAA basketball
  • his brother’s a back judge for the NFL. He officiated Super Bowl XXXIV. His cousin, Frank Steratore Jr., refs D1 basketball and B1G football

While Steratore is done with the NFL, it isn’t clear yet if he’ll continue to officiate NCAA basketball like his brother and cousin, or if he’ll stick to just his CBS job. But he’s the fourth referee to leave the job this offseason:

For better or worse, Steratore was one of the most recognizable officials in the NFL. With yet another veteran official gone, the NFL’s referee corps will look very different in 2018 and beyond.