It's almost time for Super Bowl LV to get underway, and the hype preceding the matchup between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes hit fever pitch the moment they advanced past their conference title games. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs square off at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, the players won't be the only ones being scrutinized for 60 football minutes -- the NFL officiating crew is readying to receive its fair share as officials finalize preparations for what they hope will be a mistake-free contest.
Few know better what the mounting pressure feels like than CBS Sports rules analyst Gene Steratore, having spent 15 years as an NFL official, which includes having Super Bowl experience himself. Being chosen to call the Big Game is the highest of honors for any football ref, but the league has come under fire recently for its selection process. As it stands, those chosen to the crew are the highest-rated officials of the season based on the league's evaluation of their performance, have five years experience at calling games in the NFL and postseason experience on their resume.
For his part, Steratore isn't simply fine with the process -- he truly believes it's the best way to see it done.
"Speaking to the 'All Star Crew' -- I don't think that's a good word to use," Steratore said in a pre-Super Bowl Q&A with CBS Sports on Wednesday. "I think it is best in postseason practice, and I believe this occurs in all professional sports, when we get to the postseason, I believe it is best to collectively put your best people in those games. Now, you can't build those types of crews throughout the regular season because you have 17 crews that are working each week in the NFL, and to create a balance with seniority and things of that nature so that all of the crews are well-balanced throughout the regular season. That helps not only in the level of officials in the way they're spread throughout the crews, but it also allows the officiating department to create basically on-field foot soldier mentorships that take place throughout the regular season -- where you have some younger, less experienced officials on the same side of the field with someone more experienced.
"That type of mentoring and growth that takes place on the field is so valuable to them, but I do believe once we get to the postseason, it's best to take your top 30% of your officials and prepare them for the postseason games. That's really the basis and philosophy for why they do it, and I'm a full proponent of that. I don't think that you sacrifice that much cohesiveness at all when you do that. Most of the officials throughout their careers will work with 70 or 80% of that staff at some point in time anyway, and really officials are programmed to be plug-and-play. They're all working under the same types of philosophy and same types of training.
"I am a proponent of the [NFL] using what would be the top levels of their playoff-potential and Super Bowl-potential officials."
One such official who has earned her way into that top level is Sarah Thomas, who'll make history on Sunday as the first woman to ever official the sport's biggest event. Thomas is a six-year veteran of the NFL that began her professional career as most in the league do, but with added and unprecedented stressors -- and Steratore couldn't be more elated to see her trailblazing.
"My congratulations go out to Sarah as well," he said. "The first time I met Sarah Thomas, she was in the developmental program of the NFL where they take prospective college-level officials and they put them throughout the different training camps in the NFL -- when there are two or three officials that attend the training camps. That's their beginning and introduction into NFL officiating. ... In anything in life, when you are the first to do something, an additional amount of attention and the spotlight does get put to you whether you want it to or not, because you are the first. And when you are an official, there's a critique and criticism already applied to the profession that's very high -- coupling that with being the first female official and having that spotlight on her game in, game out is a tremendous challenge.
"The way she has handled herself professionally and personally, with all of that attention and scrutiny at times, I can do nothing but commend what she's done."
As far as any advice he can offer to Thomas and the two other officials set to call their first-ever Super Bowl -- namely James Coleman (field judge) and Mike Wimmer (replay official) -- it's all about managing the pressure of the moment, of which there is no shortage of.
"I can tell you the magnitude of what the Super Bowl is for the country and, truthfully, even if you're not a lover of sports -- it's a historical event," Steratore said. "When you're officiating something of this level and you understand that an incorrect call or a slip in the moment, it's very humbling to know if that is to occur, that mistake will potentially be a part of history. That's a very, very humbling feeling when you realize that, and I experienced that. ... When you get to this level, that pressure is either something you're going to embrace at some point, or it's going to smother you.
"... Does the [pressure and pre-game preparation] increase a hundredfold or a thousandfold because it's the Super Bowl? It does, but the game is still the game. ... [The NFL] isn't changing anything. Once we kick that football off and get through all of the hype that's taking place, let's just get back to what got you to the Super Bowl. Let's just officiate the game the way it should be officiated from preseason [game No. 1] through the final game, and it's that level of consistency and that level of thought that provides a comfort level to know there's nothing additional we have to do once we kick the ball off.
"Once the clock starts, we go right back into what we've done week in, week out."
The goal for Thomas and the rest of Carl Cheffer's crew will be to complete the game without becoming a focal point of it, a feat not easily accomplished, and especially with several rules having already fueled headlines at times this season (and every season), sparking controversy for one reason or another. If the officials can avoid any added spotlight than what they'll organically face by virtue of what they're about to walk onto the field to police, it'll be a huge win for the NFL.
The lights don't get any brighter, or hotter, than this though.
Super Bowl LV is almost here, and you can watch it for free on the CBS Sports App.