Talk about a tough week at the office. Mike Pereira, the NFL's director of officiating, was so distraught over the missed pass interference call at the end of the Giants-49ers Jan. 5 playoff game that several evenings later he was still sipping chamomile tea to help him sleep. The son of a Big West Conference referee, Pereira, 52, took the bullets for the crew's gaffe, which may have cost the Giants their season, and which Paul Tagliabue described as the most disappointing officiating blunder he'd seen in his 13 years as NFL commissioner. "I give the league credit for being up front and for realizing we needed to admit the mistake," Pereira told SI last Friday. "But I've felt awful about it all week, and I'll feel awful for a long time."
Last Saturday's Steelers-Titans game may have had Pereira trading tea for Maalox. After Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher asked for a replay review, saying that the right knee of Tennessee's Derrick Mason had touched the ground after contact during a punt return in the third quarter, referee Ron Blum told a packed house and a national TV audience, "I don't believe that's a challengeable play, but I'll double check."
So much for authoritativeness. The play did turn out to be reviewable, and after watching it, Blum ruled that Mason's knee had hit the ground early in the return. Clearly, Blum, an 18-year veteran, didn't know the parameters of the review system. His admitted ignorance will draw a slap on the wrist from the league and raises questions about his qualifications. But Blum—a golf pro, who, like all NFL officials, is a part-time employee of the league—has one thing over his colleagues who muffed the interference call against the 49ers: Ultimately he got the play right, which is what officiating is all about. (Later, though, the Steelers castigated the crew for refusing to let them call time in the game's final seconds.)
In the wake of these mishaps, the league has heard renewed cries that it hire full-time officials, or at least give full-time employment to its 17 referees, who double as crew chiefs. Each ref would cost an estimated $200,000. (Officials start at $2,000 per game and can make more than $6,700, based on experience.) But it's doubtful such a move would make much difference. Blum's brain lock aside, NFL officials are well-schooled. They've all reffed at least 10 years of major-conference college football; they're graded and critiqued after every game; they're subject to a weekly rules test; and they attend classes before games and in the off-season.
Pereira, who was in the press box during die Giants-49ers debacle, sensed the call had been blown, and his fears were confirmed after he watched a replay. The officials in the Giants-49ers game apparently forgot that New York's Rich Seubert—a guard who had lined up legally in a receiver's spot—was an eligible receiver. After the game Pereira went to the officials' dressing room and told them they had missed the call. "They were pretty down," Pereira said, "but they know there are no excuses in this game." The next day Pereira called both coaches, and the league admitted the errors.
Is there any guarantee that a full-time employee would have thrown a flag for pass interference when 49ers defensive end Chike Okeafor dragged Seubert down? The seven officials had to cover a lot of ground on that broken play, and back judge Scott Green may have missed the call because he'd been forced to scramble. Would being on staff with full dental benefits and two weeks vacation have changed anything? Major league umpires and NBA referees are full-time employees, yet they still make mistakes. No matter what the NFL does, some calls will always be farcical, and football will remain part of the human comedy. Or as Giants coach Jim Fassel said last week, "It doesn't change the sick feeling in my stomach, but at least Mike was honest about it."