Former NFL official and officiating executive, Mike Pereira, now a rules analyst on Fox, signals a timeout for some Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.
Q: What would you want to tell fans across the country, and all over the world, who are going to be watching the Super Bowl about the officials?
A: You have to understand that the officials do not want to be the story. Success to them is not reading their name in the paper the next day. They don’t need pats on the back. They don’t need the accolades. They just don’t want the public to even be thinking about them on Monday morning after the game.
Q: What is your confidence in them?
A: My confidence in them is through the roof. They have proven out to be the best this year. Will there be mistakes in the game? Absolutely there’s gonna be mistakes in the game. I have yet to ever see any game where — in the vicinity of 1,500 decisions that have to be made by officials — a game perfectly worked, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s that difficult. But I’ve also hardly ever seen a game played where a coach didn’t make a mistake, or a player didn’t make a mistake. It is still a human game, and the officials that were involved in that [Rams-Saints] play feel horrible, they made a mistake that cost New Orleans the game, and I get it, it’s awful, and I think all of us feel horrible about that. Perfection is never gonna happen in sports.
Q: How much pressure, in the wake of that NFC Championship officiating debacle, will be on the officials in Super Bowl LIII?
A: Enormous. Enormous. You don’t think they don’t feel this? They know what’s on the line now when they step on the field. If it goes smoothly, then great. But if they end up with similar problems, then it’s gonna be even worse. But they know they’re under pressure, but I think it’s a good group, and I just don’t think we’ll have an outlier play like we had at the end of the game with New Orleans, but you never know.
Q: What advice would you give them?
A: Don’t call this any differently than you would in the regular season, but I probably would add, “Don’t get complacent. I know human nature. I know you don’t want to be a part of the story when the game is over, but you have to officiate the game. You can’t get yourself lulled into saying, “I’m not gonna call the ticky-tack foul.” You don’t want to do that, but you can’t think that to yourself because if you think that, that’s a different standard than you used during the season and something might catch you by surprise as it did to good officials, really good officials [in the NFC Championship], so make the calls that you’ve always made and you’ll be fine.”
Q: How would you characterize the state of officiating today and the public’s trust in officiating?
A: I cannot really say that officiating is any better or any worse than it was 10 years ago or 15 years ago during my time that I was running the program. But I do think that the public confidence in officiating is low. That may have been the case when I was there, too. And so I think that there is a new challenge that confronts the NFL, and confronts officiating. And that is: How can you make it better? There have been efforts, and in my opinion, they’ve not been strong efforts. Making 24 officials full-time accomplishes nothing. It’s almost more of a PR move to me than to be actually meaningful. With technology outpacing the improvement in officiating, I think it’s time to really rethink the process and come up with something that protects the league and the public confidence in that more calls are gotten made correctly or not missed like the miss at the end of the New Orleans game. … I don’t want to expand instant replay. I don’t want coaches to be able to challenge pass interference. I think that’s a very slippery slope in terms of more challenges and longer games. There’s seven officials on the field, and in college there are eight.
Q: You’d like what you call a “sky judge” in the preseason and if it works, implement it for the 2019 playoffs?
A: Not a replay official, an eighth official, part of the crew, travels with the crew … and give him the ability to be on site in an enclosed booth with a technician, to look at the play on television in real time and correct obvious mistakes that are big plays and involve player safety and pass interference, and be able to correct some of this stuff. … He’s able to, in 15 seconds time, correct a mistake. I think that’s what needs to be done, quite frankly, to win back the confidence to a degree. It’ll look a little strange, but it won’t happen more than probably two or three times a game. It’s kind of a fail-safe to me.
Q: If you could build the perfect on-field official, what traits would that official have?
A: We hear it used a lot, it’s called the it factor, and it’s hard to describe. But I have to have a guy that has absolute courage and no fear. I need the guy that is not afraid to confront the coach. I need a guy that is not afraid to make the big call at any time during the game, and so I need that courage, I need that confidence. I need that communication, an official that can communicate with players and with coaches. And I need ’em in perfect shape, because I don’t think that you can officiate to the best of your ability unless you are in shape and feel good. I need ’em physically and mentally strong.
Q: What was your experience with Bill Parcells like as a side judge?
A: It was actually my second year in the Miami-Jets game. This was a fourth-down play in Miami, he’s with the Jets, and [Wayne] Chrebet catches a pass and extends for a first down. Going to the ground, the ball pops out, and the official on the other side of the field rules the pass incomplete, game over. Bill goes nuts. He chewed me out pretty good before the game ended, and then when the game ended, he took off across the field to go after the official that actually made the incomplete call. I was fearful because he was so mad that he would do something that might get himself in trouble, so when he ran to the other side of the field, I ran with him, and I got in between him and the official that he was mad at. And AP took the photo, but when it appeared in the paper the next day, they cropped it and they took the official that actually made the call out of the picture, so it made it look like he was yelling at me and that I was the one that made the call.
I flew back home to Sacramento and Monday I went to work, and Monday night when I got home, there was a message on my phone, and the message was from Bill Parcells: “Mike, Bill Parcells. I just want to apologize, you didn’t deserve that. I’m ashamed of myself that I said the things that I said to you. You do not have to accept my apology, and I would clearly understand, but I was totally out of line. And I just wanted to let you know that I feel terrible about that.” And my first reaction was, “I need to look at my schedule — do I have the Jets again in the next couple of weeks?” And the Jets were not on my schedule. I thought that was really a classy move, and anytime I’ve seen him, I’ve always respected the hell out of him, and always will.
Q: How did you deal with the coaches’ abuse?
A: I felt like I had the ability to listen, and what bought me out of many arguments if it was my call and the coach was mad, I would let them vent and then I would walk over to them and I would say, “What did you see?” And so then they would tell me what they saw, and I’d say, “Well, if that’s actually what happened, I’m wrong. But I didn’t see it that way, here’s what I saw.” And most of the time that defused the argument. But I think we’ve lost some of those skills as officials. We’ve lost the ability to address a player or a coach in such a way to defuse it. There are some officials and there are some crews that quite frankly do it better than others, that are more communicative with the sidelines, who take the extra step at the end of a quarter to go over to a coach and say, “Any questions? Anything you need from me?” And coaches really appreciate that.
Q: You never threw a flag on a player or coach for abuse.
A: The worst that I got yelled at that I can remember was Mike Shanahan, and he chewed me out up and down, and the hard part of it was I deserved it. He may have crossed the line in what he said to me, but I deserved it … the most simple out-and-up pattern that Denver ran and the defender chucked the Denver receiver out of bounds 10 yards downfield with the quarterback in the pocket. It was my first playoff game [Broncos-Chiefs in 1998] and I froze. Why couldn’t I have been on Kansas City’s sideline when I missed the call? No, I was on Denver’s sideline.
Q: What were the coaches’ phone calls like when you were VP of Officiating?
A: It changed over the years. You used not to get calls until Tuesday, and then coaches knew that you were in the office … and then they’d start calling on Monday. And then they called on Sunday night because they knew I was always in there Sunday night, and I didn’t have a problem with that. I had a little bit of a problem with Jim Mora Jr., when he called to yell at me at halftime of a game that [the Seahawks] were in. He actually called me during the 12-minute halftime to yell at me about a pass interference call that was missed and a replay decision that he felt was incorrect, and I’m like, “You’re calling me at halftime? I’m sitting here eating a piece of cold pizza, and you’re yelling at me about these calls? You might think about coaching your team here at halftime a little bit or making some adjustments.” I think that the VP Officiating job is the second toughest job in all of the National Football League. I give the commissioner No. 1. But the head of officiating is the most public figure second to the commissioner, and it’s a figure that makes enemies, not friends. For me, I cherished it. I put in 12 years when I thought I would put in 10. But, amidst all the pressure and the controversy, quite frankly, I don’t think there was ever a day that I woke up and didn’t want to go to work.
Q: Describe Bill Belichick?
A: He never tried to work me and try to prove me wrong or whatever. I thought the relationship was great with he and I. It changed after Spygate, because the league was involved, obviously, and then I think I was thrown in the same bucket as the league in his eyes. When the relationship kind of broke down after Spygate, I missed him to tell you the truth.
Q: Did you ever fear for your safety or receive any threats?
A: There was an article that was written about me, this was in the offseason after the Tuck Rule play in New England. The Sacramento paper wrote an article and made references to my wife who still lived in Sacramento at the time, and I got a threatening email saying that now we know that your wife lives in Sacramento, she needs to look over her shoulder every time she leaves her house. We had the guy investigated and the guy was a no-name loser guy who was not a threat. I remember people after the Pittsburgh game when points were taken off the board at the end of the game but they still won the game, but the bet ended up not being covered, and I had people threatening me if I didn’t pay their debt. That stuff didn’t ever bother me.
Q: How have the pressures of officiating changed over the past 15-20 years?
A: Technology has made it harder, not easier for ’em. Technology exposed officiating to really show people how difficult it is. Technology has improved a lot faster than officiating has improved. The fans now recognize mistakes that are made that they wouldn’t have recognized 15 years ago. When we brought replay back in 1999, I said to the officials, “Look, here’s the deal: You can look at replay and fear it, or you can look at replay and challenge it. You can try to take your officiating ability to the next level and try to keep pace with technology. Or, you can fold up your tent, and if you think you’re gonna do that, then leave, then do something else.” Well, they all accepted the challenge, but technology has gotten better and better. Many many times, replay shows you how great the call is. … It kind of validated how good they are. But it also emphasizes their mistakes.
Q: What about the impact of legalized gambling?
A: Officials don’t gamble, we make sure of that. They’re under such scrutiny, they can’t even go into casinos or race books — even in the offseason, they have to report it to the league. The NBA scandal a few years ago hurt all officials, but it was an isolated incident. Look at it this way: They’re paid good money. It’s a great gig, and they don’t want to give it up. And the only way that they’re gonna be forced to give it up before maybe they get to the point where their skills start to deteriorate is if they make bad calls. And every play is reviewed. They’re held more accountable, I think, than anybody else in any industry is because every play they’re looked at. All they want to do is make the right call so they don’t get downgraded, and they gotta do it in real time.
Q: Describe your standard pregame visit 90 minutes before a preseason game with then-Lions coach Wayne Fontes.
A: The last thing you ask: “Are you gonna run anything that we need to be aware of? Any special play that you’re gonna run that might catch us by surprise?” And Fontes looked right at me and said, “Yeah we’re actually gonna run a screen pass from our own end zone, and we’re gonna throw the screen from the right hash. We’re gonna throw the ball into the stands off of the facade of the first deck. And it’s gonna hit there and bounce back onto the field, hit the goalpost, and then our guy’s gonna catch it and go for a touchdown.” And then what pissed me off on my card is I wrote, “Pass from the right hash, hits the facade of the first deck and bounces back to the goalpost (chuckle).” I just fell hook, line and sinker. I’ll never forget what a dummy I was.
Q: What are your thoughts about 2012 The Fail Mary game between the Packers and Seahawks.
A: It was during the lockout [of officials], and I had no idea what happened. I was fishing in the eastern Sierras in an area with no internet, no television, no nothing, so I knew nothing of it until I ventured down the mountain the next day to go to dinner in the town of Bishop, where you got internet, and my phone started blowing up. It was a quick way to end the lockout, that’s all I would say.
Q: Was the lockout was very stressful for you?
A: Sure. That was my second one I went through. I went through the one in 2001, that’s my first year taking over the officiating program. I remember [former commissioner] Paul Tagliabue coming into my office and saying, “You need to find 130 guys that will be ready to officiate in a month’s time.” And all my friends are the officials. And so I had to put together a list of replacements. We were getting ex-college officials out of bars. Anybody that had any ability, we were getting them on the field. I’ve lost a gazillion good friendships because I was management and had to train these replacements and even had to work on the field with them. It was horrible.
Q: Where were you during the Tuck Rule game?
A: (Laugh) I was in St. Louis for a playoff game. I was in my hotel room watching the game and I had a bottle of wine, and so I’m drinking my wine watching this beautiful football game — I just love the sight of football in snow. When it happened, I initially thought like everybody else, fumble, and when I saw the first replay, I said, “Oh my God. It’s an incomplete pass.” And so when Walt Coleman went over to review it with Rex Stewart, who was the replay official, I knew what was coming, that my phone was gonna blast off.
Q: Describe the phone call you made to Jim Fassel after the Giants were jobbed in the 2003 playoff game in San Francisco.
A: In some ways it’s not a whole lot different than what just happened with Al Riveron calling Sean Payton. I was just confirming to him that, yes, we did miss this [officials incorrectly called ineligible receiver downfield instead of pass interference on a game-ending botched field goal attempt by the Giants], and we should have got it and we’re gonna change our procedures and get together before we run off the field if something like this presents itself again. He listened to what I had to say, but I can’t say it was a chummy call, that’s for sure.
Q: Describe recently retired referee Gene Steratore.
A: Confident … knowledgeable … fearless. … I think he was a good official, and will be a very good analyst.
Q: Former referee Ed Hochuli.
A: Tough … stubborn … passionate about officiating … a great representative of the league and officiating. Clearly a guy devoted to it, and the one referee that I used to assign officials that were struggling. I used to move them onto his crew because I knew he would make them better.
Q: Fox broadcast colleague Troy Aikman.
A: I couldn’t be prouder of Troy Aikman. He studies rules, he studies interpretations, he seeks me out all the time during the week to ask me about plays. He has surprised me with the things that come out of his mouth when it comes to officiating. He’s tough on officials, but he really studied it and I think he’s become much more fair in regards to officiating.
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Q: Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck.
A: Misunderstood. Frustrating to me. You just have to be around him to know that he works really hard at it. I wish all those people that criticize him could spend 10 minutes with Joe and find out what a good man and person he is. To me he’s clearly the best that I’ve ever been around.
Q: Your first game as side judge was Patriots at Packers in preseason 1996.
A: My first time in Lambeau Field, I had a striped shirt on, and I’m working a game, and it’s like packed. And [I am] a guy that came out of the Western Athletic Conference, and was working New Mexico and Texas-El Paso and then BYU and Utah, but then I step into Lambeau Field, and the unbelievable feeling of walking out of that tunnel into Lambeau Field was just incredible. The second thing was the fear factor. I questioned my own ability as to whether I was good enough to do it, and I was paired with a head linesman, a guy named Earnie Frantz, who everybody told me I would hate.
A: And the game’s over, and I was like, I did it! I did it! And it was not hard, it was easy. And I was so high, I flew home the next day and went right to the jewelry store and bought an engagement ring for my current wife, and we’d been going for eight years prior to that. I was on a football high is what I was.
Q: How good of a Pacific Coast Athletic Association head linesman was your father?
A: He was good, and quite frankly, that’s how I learned the game of football. I didn’t learn the game by playing it, I learned the game by seeing it through the eyes of an official, through my dad. That was good and that was bad because I hated to see my dad abused, and he got abused from coaches and fans. It kind of took away my appetite to even become an official, and it wasn’t until somebody said I could actually make 30 bucks on a Sunday officiating Pop Warner games that I decided to do it. I needed the money.
Q: Three games, $10 a game.
A: Ravenswood High School in East Palo Alto [Calif.], and got on this field looking like an absolute nerd in a uniform that was too big, and honestly, I fell in love with it in the first quarter. I don’t know why.
Q: Who was your boyhood idol?
A: Willie Mays.
Q: What is your Battlefields to Ballfields Foundation?
A: [There is] an amazing shortage of amateur officials around the country. Average age of amateur officials had been going up for the last 10 years. The average number of people applying to become an official had declined over the last 10 years, so there’s a real dilemma in officiating right now. Then I met some veterans, and recognize that veterans are struggling getting back into their communities. … The light went on in my head like, “God, why didn’t I recruit more veterans to become officials?” The stress of being on a football field may not be quite as difficult as the stress that’s being in a bunker somewhere. … This gives them the chance to serve with kids, to serve with parents, and to be role models. We’ve got 183 veterans that we have given scholarships to around the country.
Q: Three dinner guests?
A: Frank Sinatra, George W. Bush, Clint Eastwood.
Q: Favorite movie?
A: “Paint Your Wagon.”
Q: Favorite actor?
A: Clint Eastwood.
Q: Favorite actress?
A: Anne Bancroft.
Q: Favorite singer/entertainers?
A: Frank Sinatra, Lady Gaga.
Q: Favorite meal?
A: Veal marsala.
Q: What would you hope your legacy is?
A: I don’t think it necessarily has anything to do with on the field. I read Wikipedia and what do I read about myself? I’m the person that’s responsible for getting the officials out of knickers into long pants. Well that’s not a very good legacy to have written about you, but it’s true. I was sick and tired of seeing grown men on the field with white knickers showing their skinny legs, especially when it comes to me. I think that if I have a legacy, that I was really pretty much the first to bring officiating out into the open by talking about it and maybe helping to educate the fans about the rules and officiating through the media. And maybe developing a greater appreciation for officiating. Maybe the fact that I got officiating to be recognized as an important part of the game.
Q: Describe your battles with testicular cancer and colon cancer.
A: The testicular cancer that I faced when I was young was scary. I didn’t know about it and a lot of people back when I was 25 years old didn’t, the doctors that I first saw didn’t know how to handle it and basically shoved me off to others, and I got freaked out quite frankly until I got into Stanford Medical Center where they talked to me and gave me confidence that they could treat this thing. That was a scary thing, though, and had the testicle removed and then had it tested for two weeks before I was given the facts that I had a two-year period to go through and hopefully have it not recur in that two-year period, which it didn’t, but it was a scary two weeks not knowing what you were gonna face.
And then the second one, I’ve been battling this since really 2003 in New York when it was first detected, then had my first surgery. Two weeks ago, I went to my specialist in San Francisco, and he did his umpteenth procedure on me, the colonoscopy, and at the consultation at the end, he looked at me in the consultation room and said, “You’re cured.” And I was like, “What? I mean, I didn’t even know that was an option.” Early detection was the key.
Maybe that ought to be my legacy. I have faced cancer twice and beat it both times.