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Them's the Rules

Them's the Rules

By Sam Farmer

New York Jets head coach Bill Parcells complains to side judge Mike Pereira (left), Nov. 9, 1997. Photo by AP/Hans Deryk
Why did the refs make that call? When the rules are at issue in an NFL telecast, the networks turn to Mike Pereira ’72 and Mike Carey ’71.

Less than two minutes into a game between the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, the spotlight swings to rules analyst Mike Pereira ’72 in the Fox NFL studios in Los Angeles.

The play in question: Carolina tight end Greg Olsen makes a catch then fumbles as he’s being tackled, with Atlanta recovering the loose ball. But questions linger: Was it a catch? And was Olsen down before he fumbled?

In the studio, Pereira tells all 14 co-workers in his glassed-in room to turn to the Carolina game. He wants as many eyes on the play as possible. He twists the knob on the replay monitor in front of him, rolling back and forth through the play as he talks by headset to the production truck.

The broadcast comes out of commercial, and game officials have reversed the call, saying Olsen made the catch but was downed by contact. Back in L.A., Pereira rises from his swivel chair, turns around to face a fixed camera, places his feet on an X marked with tape on the floor, and in 20 seconds gives a lively explanation of why the referee was correct in his decision. “You know, Mike,” color analyst John Lynch says on air, “you should be on that committee that figures out what a catch is.”

“John,” Pereira says with a chuckle, “I don’t think the NFL cares anymore what I have to say.”

How wrong he is. Pereira, the NFL’s former head of officiating, has carved out a spot as a highly influential and respected rules analyst in his six years at the network. It’s his job to explain and interpret intricate and sometimes controversial calls in college and pro football. The job didn’t exist before Pereira came along, yet it’s now a standard part of sports broadcasts on several networks.

The Coolest Job

Pereira has the coolest job in television, and not just because he gets to sit around and watch football every weekend.

It’s that his office on NFL Sundays feels as cold as a meat locker, with the thermostat at the Fox Sports set at 50 degrees to offset the heat of the TV lights and keep the on-air talent awake and alert. So frigid is the room where Pereira sits, nicknamed the Ice Cube, that when he’s not on the air, he uses a foot warmer and a blanket that a viewer gave him. In the truest sense, Pereira’s job is no sweat—though few could pull it off with such ease.

“Mike has this unbelievable ability to teach,” says David Hill, the former Fox executive who came up with the idea of adding an official to the broadcast team. Among Hill’s other innovations are the Red Zone Channel, the virtual first-down marker, the box that shows the score in game time constantly in the corner of the screen, and the glowing puck in hockey.

Pereira is part football, part fashion plate, with his salt-and-pepper hair combed back, his rectangular hipster glasses, and his wide array of three-piece suits. Mostly, Hill sees him as a professor.

“I can see Mike Pereira being the head of Harvard or Stanford,” Hill says, “and taking complex and barely understandable premises and theses, and being able to explain them to the thickest freshman and have him excited about being able to study it.”

Although skeptics initially rolled their eyes at Hill’s decision to shine a spotlight on the arcane rules of officiating, the Pereira experiment was so successful that other networks followed suit. Before the 2014 season, CBS hired Mike Carey ’71, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees who spent 18 seasons as an NFL ref.

“I’ve got a job where I’m able to give the whys and the wheres, and for so long that hasn’t been available from a direct source,” Carey says. “To take complex information and then to be able to translate that into something that’s digestible for the fan, it’s just a fun opportunity.”

Pereira and Carey now help shape the way America understands the rules of the most successful sports league in history.

“You see the pictures of the guys, the officials, but they’re just faces out there,” Pereira says. “We’re trying to bring a human element to the face.”

Made For This

Mike Carey on the field. Photo by Jdpaschal and used under a Creative Commons license 

Pereira, who lives in Sacramento with his wife, Gail, commutes to L.A. on fall weekends and is in the studio for college football on Saturdays and the NFL on Sundays. Carey, who lives in San Diego and runs a leading skiing/snowboarding apparel business, logs more frequent-flyer miles, traveling to the Thursday night games and heading to CBS Studios in New York for NFL Sundays.

“They’re both very smart and articulate,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says of Pereira and Carey. “They can explain it without getting really technical on the rules, and that’s very beneficial to us as a league.”

The networks have made significant investments in these jobs. Carey operates out of his own studio in New York and his team includes a producer, video operator, two sound technicians, and a staff of six college officials who work as spotters—each with two monitors, one showing a game live and the other allowing for recording and playback.

Although Carey does not appear on camera as much as his Fox counterpart, CBS frequently asks him to clarify or give his opinions on calls during games, and his voice is used in the broadcast. Accordingly, he’s gone from an officiating job where he was seen but seldom heard, to a network job where he’s heard but seldom seen.

“He has a unique way of talking about the rules, and he’s gotten a lot more comfortable with the mechanics of television,” says CBS analyst Rich Gannon, a former NFL most valuable player. “Last year was hard. He’s used to being the guy in charge and being able to take as long as he wants to make a call on the field. Now, all of a sudden he’s got 15 seconds to get in and out, when he’s looking at the camera. I thought he did a really nice job last year, and he’s done even better this year.”

On a typical NFL Sunday, Pereira is flanked by a small army of people charting every play and penalty, among them a producer to his right, an assistant producer to his left who can call up any game for frame-by-frame review. Everyone is dressed casually, in jeans and black Fox sweatshirts, except for Pereira, who now wears exclusively the line of JCPenney suits in the collection of his Fox co-host Michael Strahan.

The setup allows for Pereira to weigh in on specific plays when summoned by a broadcast team, either with his voice alone or with an appearance on camera. In week two, for instance, he was on air 17 times. He’s quick and concise when he weighs in with an opinion. That’s a skill he honed in 14 seasons as a college football official and two more as an NFL line judge—on a crew headed by Carey, no less.

“Mike Pereira was born for what he does now,” says Fox analyst Howie Long, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman. “The NFL rulebook is a lot like our tax laws. Really, really complicated, and a lot of gray areas and subtlety. To be able to lean on Mike, not only in studio but for our game crews to tap into his understanding and ability to communicate to the audience in a ways that’s user friendly, is remarkable.

“It’s like he was computer generated for this.”

Rick Jaffe, senior vice president of news at Fox Sports, works weekends as Pereira’s personal producer and is co-writing his autobiography, After Further Review. The book chronicles Pereira’s life, from surviving cancer at 25 to his rise through the officiating ranks on his way to reaching the pinnacle of his profession—NFL vice president of officiating—and all of the pressure that went with it.

Jaffe notes that Pereira was a rules pioneer, getting 76 rules changed during his nine years at the league, including one that has had an impact on the game like no other: instant replay. Still, there’s an easygoing, sports-bar feel to watching games with Pereira.

“I work Monday through Friday, but on Saturdays and Sundays it’s not like it’s even work,” Jaffe says. “We’re all just hanging out watching football together. And, ‘Oh, by the way, Mike’s got to go on live television and talk about this play right now.’”

Blindsided

Being a former official does not guarantee Pereira always agrees with the decisions made on the field. For instance, in a week two game between Dallas and Philadelphia, there was a controversial fourth-down play in the third quarter.

The Cowboys blocked an Eagles punt, and the ball was recovered by Dallas’ Kyle Wilber, who returned it for a touchdown. Philadelphia punter Donnie Jones was blindsided while trying to make a tackle on the play. A flag was thrown and then, after the officials conversed, it was picked up and no foul was called.

Pereira weighed in for the 27 million viewers, saying he didn’t agree with the decision to pick up the flag. The foul should have been called, he said, because the punter is a defenseless player who, according to the rules, cannot be hit in the head or neck area. Regardless, the call stood.

“Am I a voice box for the officials? Yeah, but sometimes they don’t like the things that come out of my voice because they have such egos that they never like to admit they’re wrong,” Pereira says. “There was always the question of, What’s going to be the relationship between the officials and me? How are they going to feel about me being the guy?

“Generally, I do very little criticism of them. I told them right off the bat that when I came here I would never use a word any stronger than ‘incorrect’ when I disagreed with a call on the field. I would never use ‘bad’ or ‘blown’ or ‘horrible.’ I would just say, ‘incorrect,’ and then explain why I thought it was incorrect, because the goal was to teach [the viewers].

“What I found was that although sometimes you’ve criticized them by saying they were incorrect, they felt better about that criticism coming from me than they did Troy Aikman or Joe Buck or John Lynch, who had never officiated. It was more credible when it was coming from somebody like me or Mike Carey.”

Like Carey, Pereira, too, started as a Pop Warner official. Although he played baseball at Santa Clara, during his junior year he worked youth football games in East Palo Alto to earn spending money.

“I remember the first day I put on the uniform, I looked at myself in the mirror and I laughed because I looked so silly,” he says. “Then when I got out there and was on the field with these kids, trying to adjudicate fairness with parents yelling at me … all of a sudden that uniform that looked so silly felt like a tuxedo. It was a feeling that overcame me that never left me. To this day, that’s still how much officiating is part of my very existence.”

Carey feels the same way. Officiating is in his blood. In February 2016, he’ll be the rules analyst helping CBS viewers make sense of refs’ calls for Super Bowl 50.

Even though Carey and Pereira no longer wear the uniform, the cap, the whistle, there’s no mistaking who they are. Under the bright TV lights, with tens of millions of viewers listening intently to their explanations, they are unquestionably stars in stripes.

Sam Farmer writes for the Los Angeles Times and has covered the NFL for more than 20 seasons. He is the California Sportswriter of the Year.

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