Thirteen seconds are left in a tied game between the 49ers and Rams. An onside kick by San Francisco's Jeff Chandler bounces into St. Louis' Rich Coady, initiating a delicious scramble. It appears Coady has possession as he falls to the turf, reaching out with his hand to soften the contact. The ball eventually slides loose, and the 49ers recover.
The officials rule the play a fumble, but it is reviewed. In the FOX broadcasting booth, analysts Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth are watching replays. Aikman talks to the viewers about whether the back of Coady's hand hitting the ground while he still had control of the ball constitutes "down by contact," ending the play before the fumble. Neither announcer knows the answer.
At NFL headquarters in New York, Mike Pereira is shouting. "Doesn't matter," he yells. "The hand doesn't matter." Pereira should know. As the league's director of officiating, he is a master of the complex rulebook. In past years, Pereira's knowledge would not have helped Aikman or Collinsworth, who likely would have continued to wonder about the hand contact.
But on this second Sunday of the season, Pereira quickly receives a phone call from Collinsworth. "This is the rule," Pereira tells him. "Whether it is the back of the hand or the front of the hand, it doesn't matter. It doesn't end the play." Collinsworth hangs up and within 5 seconds relays to his audience word for word what Pereira said -- except he doesn't give any credit to Pereira. The 49ers get the ball.
In New York, Pereira and a small group of men sitting within the NFL's officiating command center -- Ref Central for short -- laugh. "He forgot to mention your name," says Jay Manahan, statistical coordinator in the officiating department. "Doesn't matter," says Pereira. "He got the rule right. That's what is important."
For Pereira, that brief interaction with Collinsworth reinforces one of the reasons behind the league establishing Ref Central. It was a proactive attempt to temper some of the inevitable Sunday controversies over officiating. By relaying correct rule interpretations to announcers as games are unfolding, Pereira and Larry Upson, the league's director of officiating operations, hope it's less likely fans and teams will become increasingly agitated over problems created by bad information emanating from the broadcast booth.
Every Sunday, Pereira or Upson spends the day in Ref Central, which during the week serves as the nerve center for the league's officiating department. Inside the room, every game is shown on separate monitors with backup TiVo tapes. NFL employees are assigned to each screen; on a form, they record each penalty, each injury, each replay and any other controversial or particularly interesting play. They alert Upson or Pereira if a coach becomes upset over officiating and when announcers become entangled in rules questions. The monitors are arranged in a horseshoe-type alignment in the front half of the room, which is dominated by an 8-by-10 foot television screen. With a push of a button, any of the games can be instantly switched to the big screen so everyone can have a huge view of the play of the moment.
On this Sunday, there are nine early games and plenty of electricity in the room. Pereira is pivotal in generating this air of excitement. He is a combination ring master, dictator, comedian, authority figure and wheeler-dealer. In a business full of extreme opinions and constant second-guessing, he has a perfect personality for his job. A naturally outgoing man with a knack for easy conversation, he can be charming and funny, emotional and full of laughter yet firm and steely strong in his rulings, a confidence that comes from his comfort with the rules. Before his 11 hours of game monitoring are finished, he will need every one of his character traits.
It is 12:30 p.m., and Pereira receives a call from Jacksonville. The instant replay equipment, including the backup VCR, is not working. "Wow," he says. "Wow. This has never happened before." He alerts Peter Hadhazy, the NFL's director of game operations, who is sitting in another room filled with TV monitors, making sure there are no game-related problems during the afternoon. "If there is a replay situation," Pereira tells him, "we will wait the full 2 minutes, then make an announcement that the equipment is not functioning so the play will stand as called, and there will be no timeout charged. Just like our policy calls for."
Twenty-five minutes later, Atlanta checks in. The replay equipment isn't working there, either. "What?" asks Pereira incredulously. "I can't believe this is happening." Soon, both stadiums report the backup system is up and running.
"OK," he tells his staff, "let's look at these games as referees, not as fans. Keep your eyes on the monitors, and let me know what is going on." He pauses and preaches to the officiating crews in the stadiums, even though they can't hear him: "Come on, good officiating today, babies; good officiating today. All good calls."
Ref Central has its roots in the aftermath of 9/11, when the league began monitoring game security and other issues from New York. Val Pinchbeck, the former senior vice president of broadcasting who is now retired, had been a longtime advocate of a central location where games could be viewed from an officiating perspective to help improve communication with the networks. Pereira also thought it would help him get a quicker handle on game-day controversies, so when he walked into his office early Monday morning, he already would know which plays were being debated and what coaches would be upset. And, because he already would have reviewed the plays in Ref Central, he would have a preliminary answer about the correctness of the calls. Before, coaches and teams might have to simmer until late Monday or Tuesday for league feedback. Ref Central proved successful in 2002, its initial season; this year, the NFL added open communication with the broadcast booths to the mix.
On this day, all hell breaks loose in the room early in the second quarter of the Saints-Texans game. Pereira has been bouncing from monitor to monitor, reviewing major penalties, commenting on various plays, urging everyone to keep on top of their games, begging his troops to keep games, not commercials, on the big screen. The room is lively, filled with voices yelling out big plays, flags, injuries. Then, Texans receiver Jabar Gaffney fumbles near the goal line. The ball bounces into the end zone and the Saints recover, but Gaffney is ruled down at the 2. New Orleans requests a replay. Almost at the exact moment, the Falcons recover a fumble by Redskins quarterback Patrick Ramsey and take it into the end zone. But the officials rule the play is over at the Washington 1. Atlanta, which wants a touchdown, asks for a replay.
"Put the Saints game on the big screen," Pereira says loudly. He keeps glancing between the screen and the monitor with the Falcons game. His phone rings. It's the NFL observer in Atlanta. The backup replay system is down. The play can't be reviewed after all. "You've got to be kidding. You told me it was working," he tells the observer. The Georgia Dome crowd is informed about the replay problem. But the Falcons still are charged with a timeout. Pereira spends the next 30 minutes sorting out the mess, making sure the timeout is reinstated. Meanwhile, the Saints lose their appeal on the Gaffney fumble.
"It's just the start of the day, and I am worn out already," Pereira says. He paces like an expectant father. At the 49ers-Rams game, FOX announcer Joe Buck correctly explains the muffed punt rule. "Good for Joe Buck," Pereira says. At the Packers-Lions game, FOX analyst Bill Maas is questioning on air whether an incompletion/interception situation is reviewable. Pereira calls him and tells him it is. Maas quickly passes on the information to his viewers, and he credits Pereira.
The league wants conversations with the networks limited to rules interpretations, not questions about the appropriateness of judgment calls. So no matter what happens at Ref Central, all the Sunday fires can't be doused. Still, by the time the last of the early games is over, the flare-ups for this afternoon seem minimal. Then the Bucs and Panthers kick off.
Over the next almost four hours, the teams are hit with 46 infractions, 33 of which are accepted -- a near-record total. As more and more penalties are called, Pereira becomes increasingly depressed. Replays show the flags seem warranted, but he knows his NFL superiors won't relish what is happening. "This is a disaster," he says at one point. But he doesn't want the crew to stop doing its job. "If they see something, they have to call it."
That evening, while the Bears-Vikings game is unfolding on ESPN, he splices together a rough tape of 25 plays from the day, including 11 major penalties from the Bucs-Panthers game. The next day, he will add commentary before the tape is distributed to the commissioner's office and other top league executives. It is something he does every week, but this time there is more sense of urgency.
It is 12:15 a.m. Pereira has watched every key penalty call in all 15 games, seen every coach's temper tantrum, noted every major injury, disagreed from afar with a bunch of broadcasters' comments, straightened out a few with phone calls and wished that just once "instead of just praising a good play, they would praise a good call."
He laughs. He knows even Ref Central doesn't have that kind of influence.