Those who worship at the church of football fandom every Saturday and Sunday understand that Monday is a day to repent. Or vent. Or both. It’s hard being a fan. Football, while she is exciting and unpredictable is also a cruel mistress. Football giveth, then she taketh away, etc. etc. (Writer’s note 1: I’m a Denver Broncos fan and yes I know I have nothing really serious to complain about, other than eternal annoyance with the New England Patriots).
When Monday rolls around we dedicated football fans want more. More fuel to enhance the flavor of a sweet victory or ease the pain of a loss: A scapegoat, if you will. Forget placing blame on players (gasp!) or coaches (never!), when it comes to the most common and communally-shared scapegoats in the sport of football, it’s way easier to blame the refs. As such, Playboy sat down with the NFL’s former VP of Officiating and current Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira to discuss this sensitive subject and how we can alleviate the need to place blame with better knowledge of the game. (Writer note 2: Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to witness Pereira’s expertise-in-person as part of his game day monitor team at both the NFL and Fox.)
What do you think is the most misunderstood penalty in the NFL?
What is a catch, what is not a catch. I have to take some of the blame for it because I was part of the regime that decided to switch from the notion of if the ball touched the ground that made it incomplete to, “It’s okay if the ball touched the ground as long as you maintained control.” It seemed simple at the time but it got more complicated because, what was control? When the ball moved a little bit, was that lack of control? How long did you have to maintain control? Did the ball have to come out as soon as you hit the ground or if it came out when you rolled over, does that make the pass incomplete?
I don’t know how you solve it because what used to be a simple thing — if the ball touched the ground it’s incomplete — now it’s you have to get control, get both feet down and perform a football move. What is a football move? How long does it take to make a football move? The rule book says you don’t even have to make a football move, you just have to have the ball long enough that you could have made a football move. It’s become so grey in the last five years that even the competition committee recognizes the complexity of it but they haven’t figured out a way to simplify it.
Do you think that has helped players or hindered them?
You have to kind of go back as to why. These things change on a play. I think it may have been 1999; it was called the Bert Emanuel play. I believe it was Tampa Bay; Bert Emanuel stretched, made a great catch, got control of the ball, but when he came to the ground the tip of the ball hit the ground. It was ruled complete on the field but reversed in replay because the tip of the ball hit the ground — and we all said to ourselves, “That was a great catch,” but the rule made it incomplete. We’re taking away great catches…so it was at that point we said, “Well it’s okay if it hit the ground as long as he maintains control.” And I think at the time we all thought, “Great, that seems logical.” But this whole issue of what is really control, just got so wildly out of context I think and it hasn’t changed.
Does the casual fan put too much emphasis on whether a call was right or wrong?
The hard thing for people when it comes to officiating is they expect perfection. They don’t tolerate a single mistake by an official. I was involved in the league for how many years? Two years on the field, 12 years in the office, and I never saw a perfect game. Never. That’s part of the beauty of the game. Coaches make mistakes in the play calls that they make, players fumble passes and drop balls, miss tackles, all of that kind of stuff. There’s a level of acceptability that is tolerated by people in terms of those types of mistakes but one missed pass interference call and the crew is awful and they’ve had a horrible game. If you really think about it, there are about 160 plays in a game. Multiply that by seven, because there are seven different elements in a play you have to make a determination on, you’re talking about over 1,000 decisions that have to be made over the course of a game and if you make three mistakes over 1,000 decisions, that’s not bad. But people expect perfection and don’t tolerate any mistakes.
What’s the best part of your current job?
The one thing I’m gratified about is that my role, going into my fifth year now at Fox, is being copied in others. Mike Carey is now with CBS. You’ve got Gerald Austin on site now at the ESPN games, so I’m happy about that. But I’m more satisfied when somebody sends me a Tweet that says, “Now I understand the rule.” If I explain it to them where they can understand it I think they’ll enjoy the game so much better. You’d be surprised at the general lack of knowledge. It’s not our job to create controversy but what Fox hired me to do was to educate, so that’s what I try to do. So if somebody goes, “Oh I get that,” the next time it happens they have a better understanding.
What are some commonly misinterpreted penalties?
I think one of the things that irritates people and becomes misunderstood is illegal contact and defensive holding. Why is it an automatic first down? It’s too punitive. If you have a team backed up on 3rd and 20 and then you get called for illegal contact …it goes from 3rd and 20 to 1st and 10 and people always say to me, “Just make it a five-yard penalty without the first down.” Well, they’re not going to do that because, when you think about that, if you didn’t tie it to an automatic first down then teams would take a shot and purposely commit illegal contact thinking maybe the officials won’t see it. And if they are called for it, instead of 3rd and 20 it would be 3rd and 15, so you don’t want to give them that thought to where they might fudge a bit on the rules because they do — coaches fudge a little bit.
Well, the good coaches know the rules and know how to use that to their advantage.
It’s not only the rules, I think coaches have gotten smart when it comes to positioning of the officials and what they can and can’t get away with. For example, I guess I’m responsible for a lot of problems in the league but before I left I wanted to move the umpire off the defensive side of the ball into the offensive side because they were getting run over so much. With the West Coast-style offense, teams were using umpires to run picks and stuff and it was dangerous. Players were getting bigger and stronger and faster, umpires were getting older and slower, it’s a bad combination, so I moved him to the offensive side — which did leave a hole in the middle but I was willing to give up that hole for the safety of the officials. Well, coaches figured out how [to exploit] that: “One thing we could get away with, we could actually take our nose guard, for example, and you could grab the center who’s trying to get out to block the linebacker, take him to the ground because there’s nobody there to see that.” How do you solve that? I don’t know.
Coaches are smart. They’re smart and they understand the game and they’re getting smarter all the time about officiating. They know how critical officiating is: If you rack up 100 yards of penalties in a game, that’s a ton that might be more than what you gain on the ground. They’ve gotten so knowledgeable of the officials and trends of each crew; they study each crew. Let’s say it’s Week 10 and if they have a crew coming in that they have called more offensive holding penalties than anyone else in the league, the coaches will tell the offensive lineman, “Hey, keep your hands in, don’t get them outside because this crew is going to call it.” It may not have been called last week but it could be called this week.
Speaking of the coaches, who over the years have you had the most fun with?
I always had fun with the rough and tough Bill Cowher, whose persona off the field is different than on the field. He’s not the spit-flying guy and he would call me and tease me, especially if he knew I was having a bad week and he knew I was getting a lot of abuse, he’d leave me a voicemail at midnight or something and say, “Hey, how do you like your job now?” Then he’d laugh and hang up the phone. I have good relationships with most of them; we have a common interest. For as much as I say coaches and players don’t know the rules, well guess what? The officials don’t know how the game is played. They don’t know the techniques that are being used, like blocking schemes and all that stuff, so it’s really trying to officiate advantage-disadvantage when at times we don’t understand what the advantage-disadvantage is, so I always learned from coaches.
How do you, and other officials, feel about announcers and former player commentators and such? Are there better students of the game than others?
I think I was part of the officiating group that resented the announcers because here’s the thing, you don’t like to be criticized by people that have never done it before. That’s why I would never say, “That guy should never run that pattern! He never should’ve dropped that pass” because I’ve never done it before. I think as officials we didn’t like the fact that a guy who’s never worn the stripes and never knew what it’s like to have to react in 1/26 of a second, they criticize you after they’ve watched a play in super slow-motion. We’ve had many times we’ve been criticized, it’s very hard to be criticized on national television when the announcers are wrong and you’re right. You take a lot of abuse and when an announcer comes on and says, “Well, that was a bad call.” They’re going to believe the announcer because they want to take their anger out on the person wearing the stripes, which is awful in my book. I don’t think people understand how difficult it is and the commitment people make to officiate. Sometimes I wonder why they even do it. You watch parents yelling at officials and wonder. Two soccer officials in two years have been killed. Killed! I don’t know how you change this but 99.9% of the guys who wear striped shirts to do football or whatever sport, are perceived, before the game even starts, as a negative.
Kara Warner is a writer/reporter living in Los Angeles. Likes: Men in kilts, ladies in power suits, the Denver Broncos. Dislikes: Plastic surgery frozen faces on Bravo, losing, zombies.