Complaints about NFL officiating this season aren’t necessarily off-base, says Mike Pereira, who will be in the booth as the Fox rules expert Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
“I think it has been worse this year,” says Pereira, who joined Fox in 2010 after serving as vice president of NFL officiating. “I can’t quantify it, but the types of mistakes that were getting made shouldn’t be made on this level.”
Inadvertent whistles, false starts like the one that cost Baltimore a victory and other muffs usually don’t happen with the frequency they’ve happened this season, he says.
But a fifth of the NFL officiating ranks have turned over in the past two years. Inexperience is showing, he says.
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“There’s reasons why you don’t let an official work a Super Bowl until he’s got five years under the belt,” says Pereira, who came up through the college ranks before his 14 years with the NFL. “It takes five years to get to where you can keep up with the speed and complexity of an NFL game.”
For the NFL’s officiating team, it has been a rebuilding season, he says. And with more retirements looming, the rebuilding might last a while.
Rising in the officiating world
Pereira, the son of a referee, joined the NFL as a sideline judge in 1996 and rose to supervisor of officiating in 1998. He became vice president of NFL officiating in 2004.
He was there when replays were reinstated in 1999. From 1986 to 1991 the NFL tried officiating replays and the officials hated it, Pereira recalls.
There were no limits then on how many times a game could be stopped for challenges, which destroyed the rhythm of the contest.
“And the officials hated it because some guy in a two-piece suit in an air-conditioned press box was overruling what they did on the field – and oftentimes they would be wrong,” Pereira says.
When it was reinstated, the key challenges were to control the number of challenges and get officials to buy into the process.
“That’s why we put the monitors on the sideline,” he says. “They were empowered and could override their own play. They got a strong voice in making the decision.”
Furthermore, if an official overturned his own bad call after viewing a replay, it wouldn’t count against his evaluation score.
“In the grade sheet, it would be the correct call so the system became their friend. Unless it was such an obvious mistake that my grandmother could make the call from her grave, then they’d still be accountable,” he says.
Sometimes what is obvious from cameras above the field is hard to observe at ground level, Pereira says.
Officials might be watching five receivers in the pattern, looking at the back of the defender while following all the shifts and motions.
“Expectations for officiating is perfection, and it’s not obtainable,” Pereira says. “We are the world’s greatest slow-motion officials in the world, but we aren’t as good at real time. Officials have to make decisions at one-26th of a second. …
“We don’t get perfection from coaches and players. Officials are going to make mistakes, too.”
Good officials rely on instinct, he says, to make instant calls. Sometimes they can’t articulate what they saw, but they know what happened.
Pereira remembers an experiment in which microphones were put on officials to analyze their reactions. One ref said he saw pass interference but wasn’t sure what happened because it happened so quick. But he’d made the right call – it was instinctual.
Back to teaching
Bringing Pereira to the broadcasting ranks was the brainchild of David Hill, the Fox Sports chairman who also oversaw the network’s revolutionary coverage and graphics approach when it landed the contract to televise NASCAR.
It came at a time when the NFL rulebook, already about as complicated as the U.S. tax code, was undergoing changes, in part to provide better protection to players.
Pereira slipped into the broadcasts in cameos – he only appeared during appeals or sticky calls, often only as a voice-over, then he vanished. But he brought an instant authority to the games and became the biggest TV advance since the yellow first-down line.
Other networks since have hired their own Pereiras. And Fox has added rules analysts Andy Petree for motorsports, David Fay for golf and Joe Machnik for FIFA.
When Pereira arrived at Fox, Hill had just commissioned a big study on what viewers wanted from the announcers. Surprisingly, knowing the rules scored as No. 2.
“That was a revelation that my job was not only going to be about me but about our announcers,” Pereira says. “I set out to educate everyone on Fox, announcers and analysts, and treated them like they were my officials.”
He taught them the complexities of the rules and sends out tapes explaining the fine points to producers and announcers in Fox college and NFL coverage.
“I think our guys have become incredibly accurate to the point where I’m worried about my job,” he says.
Pereira admits he harbored a bit of a grudge toward some sportscasters critical of his calls when he worked for the NFL.
“I remember being a little anti-media. When you get criticized – even if you’re wrong – if you get criticized by someone who’s never done officiating before and watches the play in slow-motion, it’s irritating,” Pereira says.
When he sees a blown call, he calls it “incorrect,” but he never uses a stronger word. “Officials would rather hear it from me than from someone who hasn’t done it before,” he says.
Just so much
Last weekend’s second-guessing of the officiating was centered on the slug-fest ending to the Steelers and Bengals game.
With 30 seconds left and the Steelers in a last-ditch drive for a winning field goal, Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict knocked down Steelers receiver Antonio Brown with his shoulder and head. Flag. And 15 much-needed Steelers yards.
Then Adam “Pacman” Jones of the Bengals shoved Joey Porter, a Steelers assistant coach. Flag. And 15 more miraculous yards, setting up the Pittsburgh field goal.
From the booth came the criticism that the officials had lost control of the game.
“It’s a fair criticism,” Pereira says. “Officials lose control of games. I think the officials did everything they could. But where do we start holding the participants responsible? And (Cincinnati coach) Marvin Lewis and (Pittsburgh coach) Mike Tomlin? Both are responsible.”
December’s clash between the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. and the Panthers’ Josh Norman also spurred criticism of officiating, though Norman twice was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct and Beckham was penalized three times.
But Beckham remained in the game even after attacking Norman in the head and neck.
“It’s in the DNA of the official not to throw out players,” Pereira says. “You only throw them out if they take a punch with a closed fist or kick a player or make contact with an official. They have to use flags.”
Technology vs. the human eye
Digital broadcasting, high-definition screens, better stadium lighting and the powerful lensing of TV cameras all have meant advances in broadcasting sports.
For Sunday’s game with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman joining Pereira in the booth, Fox will have 20 cameras at Bank of America Stadium, up from the normal 15 for a regular-season game. Everything goes up a notch for the playoffs and many notches more for the Super Bowl.
Clarity of freeze-frame replay technology has far surpassed the human eye when it comes to parsing the motion of players.
“Technology puts more pressure on the official,” Pereira says. “Even in slow motion, it is so difficult to tell many times. Rulings stand.”
When replays came back, Pereira told his NFL referees that it was a glass half-full.
“I told them, ‘Don’t be afraid of technology. If you’re afraid, get out now, go do something else. Or embrace it as a challenge.’ ”
Average game day
On NFL Sundays during the season, Pereira is at the Fox Sports hub in Los Angeles.
He has his own control room, which he also uses on Saturdays for college games. He has about 10 monitors and a master screen that shows all games, even those on CBS. Each Fox game has someone recording every penalty and telling him what he needs to know.
When a challenge comes up, he talks to producers at the stadium and can ask for certain camera angles, like the shot from the high end zone. It’s the shots officials are looking at while evaluating the play.
When the network comes out of the commercial break after the challenge, Pereira is ready to offer analysis.
Getting back out
For the playoffs, with only one game a day, Pereira joins the Fox broadcast team at the stadium, which he likes because he can feel the excitement of the game.
He was at Bank of America Stadium many times during his NFL career and says it is one of his favorite stadiums. He also got to know team owner Jerry Richardson.
“Californians say, ‘I’d never leave California, but if I did leave, I’d move to North Carolina.’ You’ve got great golf down there,” Pereira says.
Complaining about officiating probably will never stop, but Pereira thinks the tone has grown more shrill in recent years, partly because of the ease of social media.
“It used to be the majority came from fans whose home team lost,” he says.
“It goes beyond that now. It comes from the fantasy player who because of the call on the field it cost him points or the guy who lost his bet.”
Born and raised: Stockton, Calif. Lives in Northern California, commutes to Los Angeles on weekends.
Education: Finance degree from Santa Clara University.
Before the NFL: Officiated with the Big West Conference 1982-1991, Western Athletic Conference, 1992-1996). Officiated at the Aloha Bowl and Cotton Bowl two times each, Citrus Bowl, Gator Bowl, Holiday Bowl and the Freedom Bowl.