Mike Pereira begins reviewing the replay before there even is a replay.
Green Bay Packers defender Damarious Randall steps in front of a Cam Newton pass to Ted Ginn along the right sideline. Ginn swats at the ball as Randall steps out of bounds, causing it to wobble suspiciously in the defender's hands.
It's the fourth quarter, the Packers trail by eight and the play occurs in Panthers territory. An interception—or an incomplete pass—could ultimately decide leadership of the NFC. Millions of fans watch and wonder which way the NFL's latest borderline call will go.
Pereira is already on the case in his Los Angeles command center, a studio-within-a-studio at Fox Sports headquarters. "Can I have Carolina in my ear please?" he asks the moment Randall steps out of bounds. His earpiece immediately tunes to the Packers-Panthers broadcast feed while an alert producer transfers footage of the Randall play to a Quantel editing console.
Pereira, who has watched three Fox broadcasts at once while a team of assistants barked updates on four other games all morning, focuses all his attention on the Randall play, stopping, slowing and rewinding each available camera angle on the Quantel's dial.
Randall's catch or no catch is not as dramatic as Golden Tate's touchdown from a Bears-Lions game three weeks earlier, when the ball bobbled from Tate's hands to a defender's and the NFL world scratched its collective head at the league's new "complete the catch" rules. But it's similar and, with two playoff contenders involved, even more crucial. Pereira, who disagreed vehemently with the Tate touchdown ruling, said that questionable catches are now the trickiest play in pro football to interpret.
"That's the one I get worried about," Pereira said. "I think it's gotten so gray that most everybody doesn't know. What makes it difficult is I lose my sense of confidence when I see it again."
Referee Gene Steratore heads for the replay booth in Charlotte. Announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman need Pereira. He has had less than one minute to review the replay and sort through the many catch variables in his mind: complete control, number of steps, establishing himself as a runner. As Pereira sits on the edge of his console table and faces the mounted camera in the corner of his command center, it's clear he is not fully confident about what he saw in the Randall replays. But Pereira does not have the luxury of withholding an opinion.
Leap of Faith
No one was certain what Pereira would be doing on Sundays when Fox hired him in 2010, not even Pereira himself. He was just wrapping up a 13-year career in the NFL, where he worked his way up from side judge to vice president of officiating. David Hill, founder of Fox Sports, had a vision about adding an officiating expert to telecasts; the details would be filled in later.
Jacob Ullman, vice president of production and talent development at Fox Sports, was there when Pereira's career took a sudden right turn.
"Jay Glazer broke the news that Pereira was retiring [from the NFL] on air," Ullman said. "David Hill said 'What?' and literally got on the phone immediately.
"David called him and said, 'You're not retiring. You only think you're retiring.'"
Pereira initially anticipated more of an Internet or behind-the-scenes role. Instead, he received an immediate on-air baptism under fire on his first day as the first real-time, on-air interpreter of close calls in television sports broadcasting.
Calvin Johnson appeared to catch a game-winning touchdown in the Lions-Bears 2010 season opener, but the ball bounced away from his hand as he hit the ground behind the back of the end zone. The world saw a touchdown. The rulebook called for an incomplete pass. Referee Gene Steratore—the same official determining whether Randall successfully intercepted Newton's pass five years later—followed the rulebook but headed for the replay booth.
Pereira went on air from an early version of his studio command center to interpret the most controversial call of the 21st century on his very first day on the job.
"I was sweating bullets," he recalled. "I was on the edge of my chair."
Pereira remembers equivocating with broadcasters Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick. "I was trying to be as evasive as I possibly can. 'Well, the rule states that if you are going to the ground you have to hold on to the ball,' I kept saying.
"I finally just had to take the leap of faith and said, 'Well, based on the rule they should leave it as an incomplete pass.' I remember hearing Billick in the background yelling 'No way!'"
Steratore finally emerged from the booth and made the wildly unpopular but technically accurate call: no catch. Pereira had been correct. "They literally had to pump oxygen into me," Pereira recalled. "I thought my career would have been over on my very first day.
"I'll never forget Jay Glazer running in to our studio and saying, 'You just hit a grand slam on your first day.'"
The Johnson play made Pereira a star, as well as a polarizing personality. It also spawned a new broadcast industry of officiating experts for hire.
Room of Substance
Pereira arrives in his command center at 8:42 a.m., over one hour before the morning kickoffs, and is immediately besieged. A production assistant attaches a pair of battery packs to his belt and runs wires to the earpiece he uses to communicate with broadcast teams. Pereira's staff of spotters and assistants has a long itinerary of leftover Saturday college football tasks for him to complete. And Jimmy Johnson, scheduled to appear on live television in precisely 18 minutes, wants information.
"The Nebraska game: Was that a force-out?" Johnson asks. Pereira explains the call, and they chuckle for a moment about the Miami-Duke ruling that consumed their attention a week earlier.
Command center is no exaggeration. Pereira spends Saturdays and Sundays in a fiberglass, mostly soundproofed fishbowl. The familiar studio where Johnson, Curt Menefee and the other on-air personalities conduct the pregame and halftime shows consists mostly of empty space: the familiar table-and-chairs, a few cameras and monitors, little else. Pereira's sub-studio is more like NASA Mission Control or a secret Pentagon surveillance operation. Long tables hold more than 20 video workstations, most of them occupied by Pereira's lieutenants (former college officials tasked with monitoring games), production assistants coordinating with broadcast teams around the country and staffers splicing video and monitoring social media.
While the pregame show broadcasts live from about 30 feet away, Pereira reviews a set of about 25 college plays collated from Saturday's action with his staff. He explains the tricky calls illustrated by the plays: offensive pass interference, cross-the-plane touchdown rulings, some bloopers to sweeten the medicine. The clips will be edited into an instructional video he will send out to Fox's collegiate broadcast teams early in the week. The video officiating seminars are one of Pereira's many behind-the-scenes responsibilities.
With 30 minutes left before kickoff, a VIP studio tour shuffles into the command center. Pereira switches into emcee mode. "This is where all the work gets done," he jokes to the visitors. "All the substance comes from this room."
Pereira is barely kidding. Once kickoff arrives, all action in the main studio ceases. Menefee and the others kick back to watch the games, hooting and groaning at big plays like fans in a sports bar, with Menefee snapping to attention a few seconds at a time for audio "Game Breaks."
Meanwhile, the Pereira command center thrums. Pereira's eyes never leave the three Fox broadcasts on the wall of jumbo monitors unless he switches to his Quantel machine to examine close calls. His staffers shout updates from around the NFL like officers on the bridge of a submarine.
Fumble out of bounds in Oakland. Touchdown under review in Buffalo.
Those 10- to 30-second bursts of on-air discussion at crucial moments in games are just the tip of Pereira's Sunday iceberg. But those are the moments upon which he is inevitably judged each week.
The Dark Side
Despite the opening-day grand slam, there were kinks to be worked out in Pereira's first years at Fox. Producers initially tried to shoehorn him into nearly every play that was getting reviewed.
"Even for the ones that were the most obvious, they would slap me on the air and I would say, 'Oh, they are going to reverse that,'" Pereira recalled. "I mean, the guy's foot was five feet out of bounds." They later learned to reserve him for the most controversial situations.
There was also criticism, both from the media at large and from within the officiating community. Pereira was not always tactful in the early years. At times (like when he called Monday Night Football announcer Jon Gruden a "blowhard" who "butchered" calls), he could be downright inflammatory, both when correcting officials and defending them.
"When Mike started this, he went over to the dark side," said Barry Mano, chairman of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO). "I was furiously texting him: 'Why are you saying it that way?'"
Pereira was receptive to criticism of his criticism. "Mike did not turtle in," Mano said. "He could have said 'see ya,' but he did not do that. We went back and forth."
Mano now visits Pereira in the command center on Sundays. Pereira sits on the board of the NASO and is a charter member of the Officiating Commentators Alliance, a small organization of golf, basketball and racing officials who followed in his footsteps. Not every referee-turned-commentator is welcome at the OCA table: There are on-air personalities so combative toward officials that Mano does not want to give them validation.
"It's about the language we use," Mano explained. "If you go on air and say, 'That's a blown call,' that adjective is fraught with gasoline. Let's use other terminology to get the point across."
Pereira built a bridge of credibility between his producers, the officiating community and the public that allowed Mike Carey at CBS, David Fay in Fox golf broadcasts, Dr. Joe Machnik in soccer and others to move from officiating to broadcasting. It all might have collapsed if Hill had chosen someone who ranted and raved for ratings.
"Mike is the gold standard on the commentating side," Mano said. "Everybody in our business agrees."
"It's not just someone who knows the rules," said John Entz, Fox president of production. "It's someone who knows how to explain them so that viewers can digest them and understand them in a short amount of time."
Wild Hair Tweets
A production assistant named Alex scans Twitter and Instagram from a workstation on the side of the command center. She curates questions for Pereira while searching for trending topics: controversial calls that may have slipped past Pereira's staff but are blowing up on social media.
"People are asking about an illegal block on Cam Newton's run," Alex says early Sunday, and Pereira asks for the play to be queued up on the Quantel machine. The replay shows the opposite of an illegal block: Clay Matthews shoving a receiver to the ground in pursuit of the quarterback. Pereira dictates a terse response.
"That's Twitter for you," he quips.
Pereira joined Twitter in 2011 during a seminar encouraging Fox Sports on-air personalities to try their hands at social networking.
"Jimmy Johnson and I were the only ones who signed up," Pereira said. "We went into a three-hour session. Then when we came out, we checked to see who had the most followers. I was really thrilled to learn that he had about 1,750 and I had two. One of the two was a stripper."
Pereira now has 279,000 followers (Johnson still nips him with 293,000). He records and publishes several brief videos about close calls, sponsored by a fast-food restaurant, every Sunday. He also responds to thoughtful questions, even in off hours. "It's one of the mediums that I can use to do what my goal was taking this job: It was to help educate the fans on the rules."
After the phantom "illegal block" in Carolina, Todd Gurley catches a pass in a Rams-Vikings game, but his long hair flops out of bounds. The officials correctly stop the clock because of Gurley's hair. Pereira dictates a tweet about hair that sounds slightly facetious.
The questions keep coming, however. "I don't think people believe the hair is really a thing," Alex explains.
No point of officiating is too small or strange for Pereira, who quickly assembles an instructional video about hair.
The videos generate dozens of responses, retweets and "likes." But of course, the social media are what they are, and not everyone is seeking an education.
"It's frustrating, the trolls that rip you," Pereira said. "It's one thing to disagree, but the unbelievable venom, the things that they say. You kind of go, 'Why the hell do I do this?'"
Years of dealing with an angry Bill Cowher or Mike Shanahan on the sideline (or on the phone to NFL headquarters) prepared Pereira for Twitter tirades about close calls, but there's one criticism he finds galling.
"I'll give an opinion on a play, and people will tweet in: 'You don't know the rules,'" Pereira said. "Rules? I don't know the rules?"
On Knee, Inbounds
Pereira's father was a college football official, but Pereira had no interest in the craft until he was a broke college student in need of money.
Pereira attended Santa Clara University on a baseball scholarship, but he harbored no hopes of reaching the majors. "You know you aren't going to get drafted when the coach mandates that you bunt twice per game," he said.
A friend told Pereira he could earn extra cash as a Pop Warner referee in Palo Alto: three games per Saturday afternoon at 10 dollars each. "I never had any desire to follow in my father's footsteps, but I had a desire for 30 bucks," he said.
Pereira was hooked on officiating from that first Saturday.
"It just hit me. The passion. I was actually out on the field, trying to adjudicate this game for young kids with their parents on the sidelines screaming bloody murder at me. It was one of the most exciting things that I have ever done."
He stayed in the business when he left college, working his way up to Big West Conference and Western Athletic Conference football games in the 1980s. It was a simpler era for officials: minimal television, no replays, long-leash supervision. A referee could go a whole season without a phone call from a conference supervisor, unless he got caught chatting up the cheerleaders before kickoff.
Yes, that happened to the young Pereira. "Forget the fact that I made a hell of a defensive pass interference call in that game," he joked. "I was called on the carpet for that one."
Pereira still remembers his first NFL game: a Friday night preseason game in Lambeau Field in 1996 that left him feeling ecstatic.
"I flew home on Saturday and literally went right to the jewelry store, bought an engagement ring. I went home, got my wife-to-be, took her to downtown Sacramento, had dinner and plopped down on a knee prior to dessert. I asked her to marry me.
"She looked at the ring, looked at me one more time and said, 'Interesting.' She knew football was swaying my decision."
Upon further review, however... "She did eventually say yes. After dessert."
Reversing a Call
The Rams-Vikings defense duel has gotten nasty. Quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Nick Foles each endure sketchy-looking hits. Fanbases for both teams clamor for roughing-the-passer penalties on social media. Pereira reviews each hit carefully and deems them legal, explaining the relevant rules off-camera to the broadcast team to keep them informed. Pereira then quickly prepares a sponsored Internet video on the hits and begins recording.
While Pereira tapes the segment, Bridgewater slides to the turf after a scramble in Minnesota. Defender Lamarcus Joyner launches at him, and Bridgewater's head slams to the ground. A loud "Wooooah" can be heard from the Fox on-air team in the adjacent studio. Hands go up around Pereira's command center. His staff wants him to halt the segment, but they wait for him to finish.
Pereira watches the replay. It was blatant roughing the passer. He suggests tacking a few extra seconds onto the video he just recorded to explain this new play. His team advises against it, telling him to reshoot the video. Pereira looks momentarily perturbed; every minute counts on an NFL Sunday, and time spent restructuring this video will take him away from Packers-Panthers and other possible on-air responsibilities.
Pereira wisely opts to reshoot the video so the Joyner hit—one of the talking points of the week that followed—is prominently featured. Despite the frenzy of the command center, he has the luxury of a few extra seconds to correct a bad call, something he didn't enjoy on the field.
Swallowing the Olive
Pereira remembers many details from his years as an on-field NFL official: getting lost on the way to games (despite following a police escort), picking the wrong restaurants for his crew's Saturday night dinners, the camaraderie among the tightly knit officiating community.
He doesn't remember any particularly great calls, however. Only the bad ones. "Your bad ones, you go to your grave with," he said.
Pereira remembers that he "swallowed the olive" in a 1998 playoff game between the Broncos and Chiefs by failing to throw an illegal contact flag. "Simple out and up," Pereira recalled. "[John] Elway pump-faked. They chucked [Ed] McCaffrey, s--t, probably 12 yards downfield. I didn't throw the flag."
It was the first half of a playoff game from 18 years ago. The Broncos won the game and later the Super Bowl. The play is not even a historical footnote, but Pereira described the details as vividly as he described proposing to his wife after his Lambeau debut, his stentorian voice suddenly grave.
"I froze," he said. "I didn't argue when they were yelling at me. Mike Shanahan is screaming at me on the sideline. What could I say? I knew it right after the play. I was sick."
Pereira remained empathetic to the all-too-human officials when he joined the NFL's front office and revised the grading system for officiating crews. He developed a comprehensive system that judged crews on a play-by-play basis instead of just studying penalties and other borderline decisions. He learned that crews get about 98 percent of plays correct, which is overlooked the moment they get one wrong.
"They probably got 98 percent of the plays right in the Detroit-Seattle game, but they missed the illegal bat because the back judge didn't think it was 'overt' enough," Pereira said. "But the illegal bat was the only play anyone talks about."
He remains empathetic now: Angry fans or bloggers may insist that Pereira is some sort of party-line "mouthpiece" for officials, but he's more interested in putting rules in context and offering constructive criticism than blasting someone for making an honest mistake under difficult circumstances.
"As an official, you know you live in a fishbowl," he said. "You know you live in a glass house."
But high-definition broadcasts, crisp slow-motion replays, a 24-hour talk cycle and—yes—Pereira's own presence as an extra expert witness have combined to make fans expect absolute perfection. "Sometimes, they're unjustly criticized."
But they are still criticized, even by an alleged NFL mouthpiece. Pereira estimates that he disagrees with about one major call per week, including national conversation pieces such as the Tate touchdown-interception. That's not enough for about half the audience—the half whose teams lost—who will often insist that Pereira is protecting his pals in the striped shirts.
Pereira worked at league headquarters with current NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino, who handled replays and other responsibilities during Pereira's tenure. He calls Blandino twice on the Sunday of Randall's interception: not to toe any party lines about specific plays but to confirm interpretations of rules, like the one about Gurley's hair.
"I have nothing but respect for Dean," Pereira said of Blandino. "We don't always agree. Golden Tate is an example. We know we're going to disagree. That wasn't the first one, and it isn't going to be the last."
The phone calls are part of a constant mission to get the on-field calls correct and to disseminate the most accurate information possible to the fans. Pereira rereads the rulebook throughout the week like a reverend studying the Bible for forgotten or misunderstood verses. His staff provides reports on the penalties and tough calls of every single NFL game, which he compiles on a legal pad by hand so he can study the tendencies of teams and officiating crews. He sends weekly memos to the Fox NFL broadcast teams about any penalty tendencies likely to be relevant to that week's telecast.
"Our guys, our producers and talent across the country, feel like he's about as valuable a player as we have," Entz said of Pereira. "He brings so much to the table both on the air and off the air."
The handcrafted, labor-intensive behind-the-scenes work stands in stark contrast to the criticism Pereira often hears about going on air to protect his officials. "They are NOT MY OFFICIALS," he insists. "I haven't been involved in the league since 2009."
Criticism like that, however, has been increasingly isolated to the wilds of the Internet in recent years.
"It's rare to have someone or something that comes into the broadcast of any sport that's universally praised and received in a positive manner," Entz said. "And that's what's happened with Mike."
The subject of an edgy broadcast experiment five years ago, Pereira has become the leader of an industry. "He's not a luxury anymore," Entz said. "He's an integral part of what we do."
"Stands" Is Your Friend
Pereira must make a decision on the Randall play before Steratore renders his. But the uncertainty grows each time a new angle becomes available. "I think the slap of the football comes with the timing of the second foot hitting the ground," Pereira says, on national television. "So to me he had not completed the process of the catch."
The monitor beneath the camera that allows Pereira to appear on the Fox broadcast shows yet another new angle, this one revealing Randall's hands fitting snugly around the football for much of what looked like a bobble on the previous angles. "Boy," Pereira exclaims, astonished at this new look at the play.
Earlier in the afternoon, he reviewed the spot of the football after a Cam Newton scramble. He ran the play back and forth over and over again. "If I have to keep replaying this over and over, I say the call has to stand," he said. It's a variation on an axiom Pereira heard in a college officiating video from the early days of instant replay: "Stands" is your friend.
"You always have to think about the ruling on the field, which was interception," Pereira says, and an emboldened Buck declares that there must not be enough evidence to overturn the call. Steratore eventually re-emerges from the replay booth and reaches the same conclusion. "After review, the ruling on the field stands," the referee says. The interception counts, and the Packers get the ball...though they don't manage to win the game.
Pereira approves of the not-enough-evidence statute; much of his confusion about the Tate interception-turned-touchdown is that replays appeared too inconclusive for such a shocking reversal.
"I felt this from day one when replay came in back in 1999: Staying with the call on the field was never going to be considered a mistake.
"The critical mistake is if you overturn something that should not be overturned. That's the worst thing that you can do in replay."
The decision to incorporate Pereira into Sunday broadcasts has now stood for more than five years. Entz and other executives are seeking other Pereira types for other networks and sports. Pereira returns home to Sacramento after his weekend trips to Los Angeles, where he gets plenty of rounds of golf in between compiling instructional videos and memos.
"I'm not overworked," he jokes.
And announcers such as Buck and Aikman know they can rely on the information coming out of that Los Angeles studio hive. "This is why Mike Pereira is the most underpaid man at Fox Sports," Buck said after Pereira guided them through a touchdown review, just minutes before Randall's interception. "I don't know what he's pulling down, but we lean on him."
"I think he's doing just fine," Aikman replied. "You see those suits he's wearing?"
"Those are provided," deadpanned Buck in response. The clothes are just about the only part of Fox's weekly officiating reviews that Pereira doesn't provide for himself.