There will be no formal announcements, public farewells or emotional sendoffs. Nevertheless, there will be a retirement Friday that should be recognized, partly because it has an impact on the NFL and mostly because it involves one of the league's most influential and valued employees.
I'm talking about Mike Pereira, who steps down as the NFL's vice president of officiating after 12 years in the league office. It is Pereira who oversees the officials you love to hate, and it is Pereira who helped make them better while humanizing a department that once had the personality of concrete.
|Mike Pereira, the NFL's vice president of officiating, steps down after 12 years in the league office. (US Presswire)|
He not only put a face on an office we had never been allowed to visit; he put a voice to it, too, always available to explain why a call was or was not made. Maybe you didn't like his officials, but you couldn't help but admire Pereira. He did his job, and he did it well, and now he steps aside to make way for Carl Johnson.
I caught up with Pereira this week to get his thoughts on the game, its officials and his future. This is what he had to say:
Q: Ever since the NFL announced you were stepping down there's been a misapprehension that you were forced out. We know that's not the case and that you decided the time was right to go. Tell me why you wanted to leave now?
Pereira: I always said this job had a shelf life of about 10 years and that you needed to turn it over and have new ideas from other people. Plus, the longer you're away from the field the more you lose a sense of how difficult it is to officiate. But along with that is that I have a tremendous need to get back to see my parents, who are really struggling, and it's the same with (my wife) Gail, whose folks are struggling also. I've been back here for 12 years, and the time was right -- both in being in able to get back to help my parents and also for me personally. This is not an easy job. This is a job where you're under the gun, and during the season it's an 80-hour-a week job. So for me, personally, it's time to slow down a bit and enjoy life a bit more.
Q: How would you characterize the quality of officiating today?
Pereira: I think it's good, but I think it could be better. The game is always improving, and the level of play is always improving. So it's incumbent on us to always improve. I think it's as good as it's ever been, and we're doing some things to put ourselves in a position to be better than ever before with better technology and using that technology in the training process. You still have to look at the game itself and say that 98 percent of the plays are officiated correctly, which is a darned good statistic. But officiating is held to a different standard than any other area of the sport. Near-perfection is the standard that's expected of officiating, when, in fact, 98 percent of the time we officiate plays correctly -- which is good. To me, I'd say there always has been room for improvement, and if I look back on my career I wish that maybe I would've seen more improvement on the field. We did some great things off the field with training, communication with coaching staffs and those types of things. But there's certainly room to improve on the field.
Q: Every season it seems someone calls for full-time officials. Tell me why it's not a good idea?
Pereira: It just depends on what a full-time official does. I've never been convinced that full-time officials are going to be good in any sport that plays only once a week. I'm obviously a strong believer in full-time officials in sports like baseball and basketball which have games throughout the week. But here it's not practical. You can only go so far looking at video, and our guys look at plenty of video. If you had more reps and more leagues to participate in that would be a different story. But I've always liked the fact that we recruit people who have been successful in their own business, who have learned how to handle pressure and who basically have been so successful that there's too much risk getting involved in any shenanigans. These are successful people who have a lot of pride in building up their own professional lives, and to say that we're going to make them full-time and have them sit at home during the week ... it doesn't make any sense to me. Plus, you can't convince me that being full-time is going to eliminate the two percent of plays that are officiated incorrectly. I mean, you can look at basketball and baseball and hockey, and they make mistakes, too. And they're full-time. So there's no guarantee that just because you're full-time you're going to be 100 percent accurate. It's not rational to think that way. I'd rather stay with my professional people who have been successful on their own and run it the way we have in the past.
Q: The NHL has a command center in Toronto where calls from every game are reviewed. You never did that with your nerve center in New York. Why not?
Pereira: Because I don't believe in it. I was not one of the real strong advocates for instant replay. As a matter of fact, I was against it when they had the system in 1986-1991. That was before I was even involved in the NFL, and I was a college official. I had a hard time selling myself on this system when I was coming back in 1998 until I realized we were going to put monitors on the field, that officials were going to get the last look and that they themselves had the right to reverse their own decisions. To me, the game belongs on the field. It's played by players on the field. It's officiated by officials on the field. Now you take technology and give those same officials a second chance to look at a play and correct themselves, and I'm all for that because they're still empowered to officiate a game. As far as I'm concerned, with technology it's gone as far as it needs to go. I hate the thought of taking (officiating) out of the stadium and putting it in some centralized office in New York or anywhere else because, if you do, officials are going to become tentative and are going to wait for replay officials in New York to make a call. It leads you down a very slippery slope. The game belongs in the stadium and on the field, not out in some central city somewhere.
Q: It's certainly a contrast to what the NCAA has, where officials on the field don't control replay calls.
Pereira: To me, the college system is on the same road that we were when we had our system in '86 to '91. There are no restraints. So they could end up like we were, with a game where there are 13 stops. And that's going to ruin the game and the tempo of the game. I know they've tried to limit it to plays that have a real competitive impact, but the reality is that as replay assistants in college get more comfortable -- and some of these guys are retired and have been off the field -- they're going to stop more plays. That's the way it was in the NFL under the old system, and to me that's not a good system. There has to be a limit. We still sit at 1.3 stops per game, and the colleges already have zoomed by that number. When you get to the point where you average over the course of a season four or five a game nobody's going to be happy with the pace.
Q: A frequent complaint in all sports is the lack of consistency in calls from crew to crew. Is there anything that can be done to improve it?
Pereira: That's always an issue because when you're talking about consistency, you're basically talking about judgment calls -- and it's very, very difficult to get people to react the same to judgment calls. There's so much involved in that. I think we consistently interpret the rules. It's just that people -- and it's human nature -- don't react as quickly or don't see things as clearly, so judgment does really get into that realm of inconsistency. But I've always been a bit confused as to what consistency really is and what people really mean by it. Sometimes when I talk to coaches they'll say, 'Well, you're inconsistent.' And I say, 'OK, explain to me what you mean by inconsistent. What do you actually mean?' And they'll say, 'Well, this crew calls 14 fouls a game, and this crew only calls 11. That's a big inconsistency.' And I tell them, 'The matchups could be totally different. You could look at the 32 clubs in the NFL where some clubs don't foul very much and others do. Does that mean that they're inconsistent?' To me, what we should focus on as leaders in this industry is that the crews remain consistent; that whatever you call as a crew in the first quarter you call in the fourth -- and that you don't have inconsistencies within the game. Players and coaches will adjust. That's why they scout officials to a degree. To me, the biggest issue in terms of inconsistency is that whatever sport you're in that your strike zone remains the same in the first inning as it does in the ninth. Or that your three-second call in the first quarter stays the same in the fourth. Or that if you call offsides on the kickoff on the home team in the first quarter, you call it on the visitors in the fourth if they're the same distance offsides. To me, that's the area (we should focus on); not just attack the whole thing and say, 'Football officiating is inconsistent.' I think we need to look at it from a crew basis and say each crew is consistent through an entire game.
Q: In your opinion, has instant replay made the jobs easier or tougher for your officials?
Pereira: I think it's made it easier. It's brought more scrutiny to them, but if you take a look at it about 34 percent of the time that their calls are overturned on the field. You can flip the tables and say, well, 66 percent of the time their calls are proven right. The calls sometimes are so difficult that even in slow motion replay you don't know if they're right or wrong. So I look at it like this: 66 percent of the time they're correct, but 34 percent of the time we change the calls to make them correct. No official ever wants to leave the field making a bad call, and if he's able to look at a play and see that, yes, I did make the wrong call, they were able to reverse it and I can walk away without getting a downgrade it makes it better for him. I think (officials) were nervous about it going in, but the whole key goes back to what I said: They're still empowered to officiate the game, and no one can overturn their calls without them looking at it and making the final decision. So it's a tool for them. It's not a tool for anybody else. They're not intimidated by it, and they have to look at it as their friend because it takes them out of mistakes.
Q: If there were one rule you could change what would it be?
Pereira: I've never been an advocate of the pass-interference rule. It's too punitive. You have skill players downfield and you get slight grabs of the arms that look to be pass interference, but there's not enough restriction. Yet you call it, and all of a sudden it becomes a 45-yard mistake, which kills me. There is no other penalty in this game like that. You could kick a guy in the teeth, and the maximum you're going to get is a 15-yard penalty. But you can tug on a guy's jersey and get a 45-yard penalty. I hate the fact that at the end of the game you can throw a Hail Mary to try to draw the pass-interference foul, and if you commit pass interference in the end zone all of a sudden you put the ball on the 1 and it's a 49-yard penalty. I think that's too severe, and it's the hardest call we have to make. Quite frankly, I've always liked the college rule. Maximize the penalty to 15 yards, and if it's inside of 15 yards make it a spot foul. But it hasn't had support (in the pros) because they were always afraid of taking away the vertical game, (fearing) that defenders who were beaten would reach out and tackle people. But I don't see that happening in college. Defensive players try to make the plays.
Q: What do you consider the biggest changes in officiating under your direction?
Pereira: I think our relationship with the media is better than it's been. We worked hard to try to educate the media. One thing I found when I got involved in this is that the media and announcers wanted to be right, but they can't be expected to know the rules when the rules are very complicated and sometimes hard for me to understand. So we made an effort to try to work with the media, and I think our relationship is better and our relationship with the clubs is better. We have worked to communicate with head coaches and we worked hard to get involved with the review process during the week with clubs. We visit with them all during the offseason, which is what we're doing now. So that part of our efforts is better. I just think we're a more open department than we've ever been and more responsive to the fans than we've ever been -- all of which is positive. Our fans are too sophisticated to try to brush officiating under the carpet. They should know that we should accept responsibility, we should admit when we're wrong and we should explain why we do things. And I think we've become better at that.
Q: What will you miss most about this job?
Pereira: The natural thing is that I'm going to miss some of the relationships I've made through a wide spectrum of people. I'm going to miss some of the coaches I've dealt with and that I've had to deal with through their frustrations. To work with them and listen to them ... I'm going to miss a lot of those relationships that I never thought I would've had when I was selling T-shirts in Sacramento. I'm going to dearly miss the relationships I've had with some of the people here in the office over the last 12 years. Plus, with my wife not coming here the first five years, I made some tremendous friends that pulled me through my homesick times. But I'm going to miss the stature of the job. Everyone who gets involved in officiating has an ego, and I would hate to admit that maybe mine is bigger than I thought. The job itself was fascinating, and it was public. And I think I got to the point where I kind of enjoyed that stature, and I'm sure I'm going to miss that now when I step into whatever I do next. I look back to 1997 when the league first approached me about coming into the office. At that point, I'd only been on the field for one year, and I made the decision I would come off it after one more season. It was a very difficult decision because I'd been officiating all those years at the lower levels in college and then had a chance to come on the field in the NFL. Then, in one year, I give up an opportunity to become a referee -- which I was in training for -- to take this job. I go back now and think after 12 years if I got to go back to 1997, and they asked me the same question would I answer it the same way and take this job? And there is no question I would make the same decision. I just feel that I've had an effect overall in officiating and how it's perceived, and I feel good that I'm leaving when I'm leaving because nobody is asking me to leave. I even extended my contract another year so they could get a replacement. So I really feel good about that.
Q: And what will you miss least?
Pereira: I'm not going to miss being here 80 hours during the season, going from the first of August to essentially the first of February working 80 hours a week. Literally. I got tired and I didn't see much of my wife and very little of my family in California. That part of it I'm not going to miss. That takes its toll.
Q: So what's next for you, Mike?
Pereira: I don't know for sure. The media aspect is something that has been interesting to me. But all my friends told me to slow down and don't make any decisions on what you're going to do until you see what opportunities may come around. I have purposefully waited and looked at different things. I'm not retiring. I'm transitioning. My goal is to transition to a job where I can work six months a year -- six months on, six months off. That's been my goal since I looked at ending this job about three years ago, and that's what I'm on track to do now. Obviously, if I'm going to have a job where I work six months on and six months off it's going to be tied to football and a season. So it depends on what I end up doing.