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How Mike Pereira Changed the Way We Watch Football Forever

By mastering the NFL’s confusing and ever-changing rule book, the Fox Sports analyst has become an essential voice in a complicated time

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Mike Pereira thinks about the first Sunday of his broadcasting career often. In the opening game of the 2010 season, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson appeared to catch a go-ahead touchdown with 24 seconds left against the Chicago Bears. His celebration was cut short, however, when officials ruled it an incomplete pass after determining that the ball had touched the ground as Johnson fell in the end zone. A review followed, calling Pereira into action. He wondered why he couldn’t get an easier, more obvious call. A meaningless sideline catch, maybe? He was embarking on a second career, having left the NFL, where he was the vice president of officiating, and taken a newly created position at Fox Sports as a rules analyst in the broadcast booth. In many ways, Johnson’s non-catch illustrated the era Pereira would help usher in: The NFL’s rules were constantly changing, and it was Pereira’s job to tell America what the hell was happening. Football is defined by many things, but there are few shared experiences as frequent as having no idea on any given week whether a catch will stand based on the NFL’s current version of the rules, or whether the defensive end who just brought down the quarterback will get flagged for roughing the passer. Pereira has developed into a trustworthy guide, the Walter Cronkite of telling America whether the receiver maintained control of the ball as he hit the ground.

This rules obsession began in the past decade. Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck spent time in the Monday Night Football booth with his father, longtime NFL and MLB broadcaster Jack Buck, during the 1980s, and he doesn’t remember ever hearing the rules of the game discussed. “They just weren’t part of the conversation back in the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s. You deferred to the guy on the field. He flipped on his microphone and that was the call. It was never written about, talked about, tweeted about.” So what changed? Well, everything. Pereira and his colleague, Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino, pointed to the reintroduction of replay nearly two decades ago. Buck mentioned how high-definition televisions ushered in a new era of fan scrutiny. Former NFL officials I spoke with identified social media as a culprit.

All of these theories are probably correct in some way, and they led to Pereira being peppered with questions by Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick about whether the call against the Lions would stand. Pereira tried to explain what the referees were examining, repeating, “Well, the rule says,” until, he said, “they finally made me make a decision.” He said he thought the call would be upheld and the pass would be ruled incomplete. “God bless [referee] Gene Steratore for saying, ‘The ruling on the field stands — incomplete,’ because if they changed it I might be fired,” Pereira said. “I may have come close to fainting.” The league office later called Pereira to tell him that his explanation on the broadcast took the heat off the officials and put it onto the rule itself, which it prefers. “That lasted a week, until I criticized something and the league was mad at me,” he said.

Pereira and Blandino, who was hired in 2017, have become the voices of a complicated era of rules enforcement in football. The NFL continually tinkers with the rules in the name of both safety and entertainment — but then, for example, will pass a rule that limits the use of the helmet, have it dominate headlines for months, then barely enforce it. It’s a time when a rapid increase in the number of roughing-the-passer penalties can cease to be a story after referees start throwing fewer flags. It’s a time when “body weight” can be said as much as “Aaron Rodgers” in the first month of the season. Pereira is a pioneer in that sense. He has, along with Fox Sports executive David Hill, who hired Pereira in 2010, created what Fox broadcaster Troy Aikman called a “cottage industry” of rules officials at other networks. “There are games where the rules are the main story line now, more than the score,” Buck said.

Mike Pereira
Courtesy Fox

I wanted to watch football with the people whose job is to explain the moments in a game that few people understand, so I joined Pereira and Blandino on the Sunday of this season’s Week 4 at Fox’s NFL studio in Los Angeles. “I shouldn’t do this,” Pereira said about 30 seconds before the early slate kicked off. “But if you want the real experience … ” He threw off his dress shoes and put on brown Ugg boots so he could watch the games in comfort. There are probably more glamorous places to watch a football game — the owner’s box at Jerry World, maybe — but nothing matches sitting with Pereira and Blandino for eight hours.

Replay was reintroduced in the NFL in 1999, ending a strange seven-year period when there was no recourse for obviously blown calls — like when officials credited New York Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde with a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in 1998 even though television replays clearly showed him down before the goal line. When owners voted to bring replay back after that season, they treated the decision as a dramatic development but failed to mention who it would affect most: the viewer. Then–Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney told The New York Times: ‘’My greatest hope is that it works. My greatest fear is that it won’t.’’ Most of the owners complained about the technology or the loss of a timeout after an unsuccessful challenge. Little attention was paid to the television product, even though the NFL was, at its core, a television product. “You’ve got two and a half minutes to fill and you can either go to a commercial or run the play back and forth. The focus really goes to the officiating,” Pereira said. “If we didn’t have instant replay and there’s a sideline catch, we might show one quick replay, then we’re going on to the next play. That, to me, is when the focus changed.” From there, Blandino said, “we’ve created these windows where we can discuss rules — it’s evolved beyond replay into discussing things like roughing the passer.”

Shortly after Pereira announced that he would be leaving his job overseeing officiating in 2009, he got a phone call from Hill, the head of Fox Sports. The two men had developed a good rapport during yearly officiating seminars. (Buck said “thank God” when Pereira was hired because he was so good at explaining the rules in those seminars.) The call, as Pereira remembers it, was brief: “‘Pereira, it’s Hill, you aren’t retiring. We’ll have something for you. Goodbye.’ That was basically it,” Pereira said. He had spent two years as an on-field official in the NFL after several years officiating at the college level. He still remembers that in his last game, a 1998 playoff matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs, he failed to flag an illegal contact penalty that should have gone against Kansas City. “I never got an opportunity to correct it. I choked in my only playoff game on an easy call,” he said. “You recognize how hard this is, to blow something that relatively easy.” By that time, the NFL had wanted him to take a job supervising officials, and he then became vice president of officiating in 2004. Blandino took over that job in 2013 after spending much of his career working in the NFL’s instant replay program; he joined Fox last year.

Pereira’s and Blandino’s presence on television has dovetailed with fans’ desire to understand what is going on during controversial rulings. It has spawned an industry in which active referees covet similar positions. Terry McAulay, an NFL official for two decades, joined NBC this year. He told me he thought he had another five years as a referee, but, after much deliberation, jumped at the chance to change careers. “I thought if I didn’t do it, there probably wouldn’t be an opportunity for a long, long time.” McAulay said that when he was on the field, he liked rules analysts like Pereira because they are usually accurate. “Mike has had tremendous success, and now Dean does as well. People are just hungry for real-time answers,” McAulay said. He said fans’ desire for rules analysis was brought about by social media, because “the dynamic changed from, ‘They just did something bad to my team, but I’m moving on,’” to deep-dive investigations into specific calls among millions of people online. This, along with increased rule-tinkering, has led to media coverage stating that referees are in a “critical moment” or face a “crisis of confidence.” Neither Blandino nor Pereira think officiating is any worse than it has been, but that referees are simply more scrutinized.

The fact that every network, as of this year, has a rules analyst, creates a feedback loop: Officiating is talked about more, meaning more former officials are needed to talk about officiating. The abundance of analysts dissecting every call makes Blandino feel for current officiating head Al Riveron. “I had one [Pereira], then Mike Carey for a short time. Al has five? That job is even more of a challenge now.” (When CBS hired Carey as a rules analyst, it was the first attempt by another network to match Pereira’s success, but Carey lasted only two seasons.)

Watching games with Blandino and Pereira can be an overwhelming experience. Every contest is on a monitor. High school and college referees surround the duo, alerting them to every development. Fox probably has more people monitoring pass-interference calls than some small nations have committed to national defense. Usually when there’s a big play, one of the referees or producers in the room will yell “smoke” or “no smoke” to indicate whether there is a potential rules controversy. On that Week 4 Sunday in September, Pereira said that the roughing-the-passer penalties that had dominated headlines earlier in the month wouldn’t be an issue because the NFL had issued a clarification to give referees an out from throwing the flag. He was right — the penalties have declined.

Courtesy Fox

When a questionable call arises, Blandino and Pereira process it rather than react to it. There was one instance, however, when Blandino seemed slightly annoyed — on camera and off — during the Cleveland Browns–Oakland Raiders game. Carlos Hyde’s game-sealing first-down run was challenged, and the call was overturned on review after referees ruled that Hyde had come up short of the first-down marker (he didn’t). Blandino had said on the air that there wasn’t enough video evidence to overturn the call. When officials said otherwise, he gestured for the camera to be brought back to him, looking like a basketball player demanding the ball after a missed shot. “I didn’t see any way that they would overturn it,” he told me later. He said that when this happens, he wants to come back on the air to explain why the call would go that way, not to get into a debate over whether it was correct.

Blandino finds Sundays at Fox more stressful than when he was a replay official or running NFL officiating. At the NFL, he said, you’re simply applying rules from the rule book. On television, it’s possible to correctly interpret the call but have the officials get it wrong. “Then you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. They may get the call wrong and what you were saying is the correct call.” Added Pereira: “It’s, ‘We were wrong,’ it’s never that the league is wrong. I don’t like the guessing game, but I understand it.” Pereira considers supporting the broadcast team a bigger job than interpreting the rules on camera, whether that involves telling a producer which rule is coming into play in their game or putting together videos or talks for Fox broadcasters so that they’ll better understand the rules. He travels with Buck and Aikman to Thursday Night Football and big national games, and his presence has made life easier for Aikman, who said there is “no doubt” it’s harder to talk about the rules as a broadcaster than it’s been in previous years. “The rules change seemingly every week. This year alone, you’ve got the helmet rule, hits on the quarterback. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of consistency,” Aikman said.

For Buck, the quintessential Pereira moment came during a playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys in 2015. In the fourth quarter, on fourth-and-2, then–Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant went to the ground to catch a pass, bounced up, and fell into the end zone. He was ruled down at the 1, but the call was changed to an incompletion after a review found that Bryant did not maintain control of the ball when he hit the ground. “To the world it looked like a catch,” Buck said. “Mike was there to say, ‘By the letter of the law — you may not agree — but that’s the proper application.’” Buck said it’s always hard to “climb out on the limb” to predict a call because there are simply too many exceptions to rules. “And no one cares what I think, no one cares if I agree with it. They care what Mike Pereira thinks.”

When Blandino was still head of officiating for the NFL, there were times when he and Pereira got mad at each other. Pereira dubbed it “occasional short-term anger.” The two remained friends throughout, however. “Having someone like that was a blessing and a curse,” Blandino said. “It was a blessing because I could communicate with him and he was giving the correct information to their talent, because a lot of times they don’t understand the rules and they aren’t going to understand the rules to the degree a former official will.”

Pereira said that he did not like armchair media critiques of officials when he was on the field. “You get criticized by guys who have never done it before and don’t know the rules,” he said. “The networks wanted to be right; it just takes years and years to master the rule book.” This is a common refrain from referees: Having Pereira and Blandino on game broadcasts is a good thing because at least they get it right. “What they’ve done is created an illusion that this is easy — it is not easy,” said Mark Silverman, Fox’s president, national networks. “And you see that when other networks have tried to emulate it.”

Dean Blandino
AP

When I asked Blandino and Pereira about the stress involved in running officiating for the NFL versus talking about it on television, they each responded differently. Blandino said he was never that stressed while working in the league office because he was simply applying the rule book. Pereira, however, said that he probably stayed a year or two too long. He approached the job too emotionally and said he struggled at the beginning by arguing too much with coaches who complained. As for his current role: “The job now is stressful, but I’m playing golf on Monday. Coaches still called me, but when I was talking to Mike Shanahan I was on the third tee. I got to say, ‘Hey, not my job anymore.’” Pereira had other motivations for leaving the league in 2009. “I wanted to get home to spend some time with my dad, who had begun to struggle [with his health], and I have to admit to some degree so had I. It is the hardest job I have ever been involved in. I prided myself in knowing the rule book, page to page, cover to cover. Maybe the pressure of the job started wearing me down and that knowledge I could take for granted began to wane. Someone would say, ‘What was that?’ and I used to say ‘Page 42, Rule 3, Section 3, Exception 1,’ and I started to say, ‘Uhhhh I think it’s Page 42 … ’”

The weeks between his departure from the NFL and when his Fox gig started were dramatic. “I went from a day-to-day pressurized job to being home, never getting out of my sleepwear. I kind of shriveled up into a shell. I wasn’t golfing. I didn’t have guys to golf with. I didn’t have guys to fish with. I took a bit of a nosedive. I wasn’t involved in anything. So you go from having everything to do to having nothing to do. When I got into the Fox thing, I got to still be a part of the game. I didn’t have to deal with the Monday-morning stuff, the Tuesday coaches’ questions. I got into this pattern and I found out it was more enjoyable. That kind of pulled me out.”

Now, Pereira is like the mayor of the Fox lot on game days. He travels to Los Angeles from his home in Northern California (Blandino moved to Southern California from New York). Michael Strahan brought over cookies to Pereira’s seat on the day I was there. Blandino and Pereira sit about 30 feet from the main stage for the Fox pregame show. At different points throughout the day, Pereira uproariously laughed at the Colorado mascot shooting himself with a T-shirt gun, and showed most colleagues who walked by. Pereira and Blandino got updates or clarifications on plays or calls they might have missed from the other referees on set. Pereira also tries to include officials from Battlefields to Ballfields, the foundation that he created in 2017 to help train veterans to be referees.

What I’m intrigued by is what they are watching. Cris Collinsworth told me once that he learned a trick about broadcasting from John Madden: Watch the game inside out. That is, watch the center of the play before the snap and pull back the lens from there. Referees watch not to analyze the game, but to analyze the rules. The lens is different because they are not watching for touchdowns or nice passes, they watch for illegal contact. Pereira said that he counts defensive backs and checks for errors in formation or pre-snap routine. When he’s in the stadium, he focuses on the releases of the receivers or whether there’s holding or illegal contact. Then he goes wherever the play takes him. Blandino was never an on-field official, so he relies on his experience from the replay booth. “I’m counting players before the snap, to see if, for example, the defense has 12 and the official has missed it.” Like Pereira, he’s looking at formations and routes. He stares down the line of scrimmage and monitors whether receivers are stepping out of bounds.

We talked a bit more about the state of officiating. Pereira said that some of the problem is perception. “Like with roughing-the-passer scenarios, you’re holding the officials responsible for doing what they are told to do.” He would like to get them more repetitions, pointing out that NBA referees and MLB umpires work significantly more than NFL officials. “They’ve got some guys in the CFL now and I would make every effort to get into the other professional leagues, like the new [Alliance of American Football]. You won’t get better watching film or reading the rule book.” Blandino took a broader view. “I think the NFL rule book is complicated. That’s the result of years and years and years of rule changes, in many cases in response to one play. Somebody thought it wasn’t fair. I would look at the rule book big-picture. You have to ask: Does it happen throughout the season or was it a one-off? You can’t make everything perfectly equitable. Officials are inundated with new and complicated rules. The simpler we could make it, the better.” One thing he’d like to do is make replay more efficient by removing the referee from the process and instead have the replay official decide the call, which would eliminate “the whole dog-and-pony show” of the referee talking to the coach and walking across the field to put the headset on.

Regardless of what changes are made, referees will continue to be a topic of discussion. That’s how it is in the modern NFL, where a slew of rule changes will be implemented next spring, and then will dominate the news cycle for months and become the focal point next September and October. Pereira and Blandino are more famous than a solid chunk of NFL players because they know the greatest secret of all: what a catch is in the NFL.

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