While serving as NFL vice president of officiating, Mike Pereira answered the phone one day and heard the indignant voice of his father, a former official in the Stockton area.
“He told me, 'Your officials are terrible. We were better when I was doing college football,' ” Pereira said.
Criticizing officials is much a part of the weekly routine as fantasy football. Calls are analyzed and scrutinized in print and broadcast media, with social media adding a more heated and partisan level of scorn.
Game-changing mistakes, problems with procedure regarding instant replay and a need for full-time officials remain topics of debate.
49ers fans are still talking about two calls in the 23-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game. Late in the third quarter, Seattle safety Chris Maragos hit the plant leg of 49ers punter Andy Lee, a clear 15-yard penalty for roughing the kicker.
Instead, the flag was for running into the kicker, a 5-yard penalty which failed to get the 49ers a first down. They declined the penalty, with the Seahawks taking possession and driving 62 yards for a touchdown and a 20-17 lead.
A short time later, 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman stripped and recovered a fumble from Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse. Instead, the ball was awarded to Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch.
The play was moot — the Seahawks lost a fumble on the next play — but the hole in the officiating system was undeniable. Under NFL rules, neither the Lee nor Bowman plays were eligible to be reviewed on replay.
Other than three feet of snow, the NFL's nightmare scenario for Super Bowl XLVIII would be the Seahawks or Denver Broncos hoisting the Lombardi Trophy with the help of an error in officiating.
Former Raiders coach and NFL analyst John Madden, speaking of the officiating on Sirius XM Radio, said, “It wasn't good and it hasn't been good all year.”
NFL senior vice present of officiating Dean Blandino believes the obvious mistakes overshadow solid officiating.
“We analyze some 40,000 plays during the season and our accuracy percentage is actually higher than last season,” Blandino said. “Whenever you have high-profile situations where we got some mistakes, it creates more controversy, more interest, and I think that's kind of where we've been this year. The media has jumped on those situations but I think overall the officiating has been good.”
Jim Tunney, an NFL official from 1960-91 who works as an observer for the league, cited the accuracy rate at “between 96 and 97 percent.” He said officiating is better because of technology.
“We watched our film on a Bell and Howell projector on six reels, sometimes using a bed sheet on a wall,” Tunney said. “Now every Tuesday, every official in the league can call up a file that has every holding penalty from every game on Sunday.”
Pereira, who left the NFL in 2009 and went to Fox Sports as an analyst breaking down officiating, remembers telling his father to pull out his old film, see the number of officials out of position and take into account the ease with which a mistake is exposed in the current set-up.
“There are upwards of 30 cameras in a game. Everything is in super slow motion,” Pereira said. “Everything is so difficult. If you were to take the chronic complainer and put him at field level and make him watch plays at real time, life would be a blur. There are mistakes, but there also some amazing calls.”
Mistakes such as the Bowman and Lee plays often are the impetus for rule changes, a process which begins with questionnaires to each team and goes to the competition committee in the March owners meeting.
At the owners meeting, changes are debated, individual teams lobby with other teams, and a vote is taken. Changes made by the competition committee are almost always voted in by ownership, with nine negative votes needed to prevent passing.
Blandino has an extensive background in replay, and it appears likely the use of replay will increase. One possibility is moving replay away from the field and into the press box with a final say at the NFL offices in New York.
“I think we're headed that way,” said ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt, a former front office executive with the Green Bay Packers. “There seems to be a groundswell. The reason replay came in to begin with was to get it right, the game-changing call. Now we've got game-changing calls we can't get right because replay doesn't allow it.
“I think we're going to be hearing more about centralized replay, like hockey has and baseball is talking about. I would think that would be a trend.”
Pereira also thinks a centralized replay system is possible but warned replay, instituted in 1999, will never eliminate mistakes.
Neither will making NFL officials full time, although the league plans on phasing in some. Unlike the NBA or Major League Baseball, most NFL officials have other jobs. There is currently only one fulltime official.
Referee Gene Steratore, who presided over the 49ers-Seahawks NFC Championship game, worked two Division I college basketball games during the week.
Both Blandino and Pereira were of the opinion working basketball and making decisions would only enhance his skill to call football, and not detract from it.
With so many part-time officials, it seems an entire crew of fulltime officials is unlikely in the near future.
“We're going to see what makes the most sense,” Blandino said. “Is it a specific position? Should it be the referee? Can we have multiple fulltime officials across all positions? Any time you can spend more time honing your craft, certainly there's value there.”
Pereira is in favor of making all 17 referees fulltime, rather than one at each of the seven positions (referee, umpire, head linesman, line judge, back judge, field judge, side judge).