I want to make a revelation that I truly believe—and have believed for a long time:
The NFL, with the exception of the senior vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino, are not big fans of officials or officiating in general.
This excerpt from After Further Review: My Life Including the Infamous, Controversial, and Unforgettable Calls that Changed the NFL by Mike Pereira and Rick Jaffe is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/AfterFurtherReview.
There it is. I said it. Listen, I don’t like saying it, because I love the NFL and loved my time working there. But that’s my belief.
Why do I think that? Because officiating is perceived as a negative, and that reflects poorly on the league. And the 2015 season was a perfect example of that. You will seldom hear anybody talk about how great officiating is and how good it is for the NFL. The fact is that any time an official throws a flag, it’s a negative. It’s somebody doing something wrong, and that translates into the league getting complaints.
It’s certainly not a revenue generator. In a league that puffs its chest about how its goal is to have league revenue increased to $25 billion by 2027, officiating is a negative. It doesn’t bring in a dime.
I used to joke when I was in the league office that the notion the officiating department didn’t bring in any money was flat-out wrong. One year, I sold two rulebooks for $10 each. That was $20 worth of income to help offset the $30 million or so it takes to run that department.
But let’s get back to how officials are held accountable. In my mind, as well as others who have run the NFL’s officiating department, accountability always had to do with grades. That’s how you hold officials culpable, and if they don’t grade high enough, they don’t get to the playoffs, which can be quite lucrative. And if you don’t grade high enough and make a certain standard over a period, the next step is getting fired.
That’s accountability. But as the great Bob Dylan once sang, “Things Have Changed.” And, unfortunately, if you look at a four-week snapshot of the 2015 NFL season, I think that period became a watershed moment for how the league changed its approach to the accountability of its officials. Blameworthiness went from grades to suspensions and then insults.
However, before we get to that, you first have to understand how it got to this point.
I feel it’s because the top three people in leadership at the league office responsible for the officiating department have never officiated. Let’s start with Commissioner Goodell, followed by Troy Vincent, the executive vice president of football operations, and Blandino.
None of them have ever been officials, so it would be difficult for them to know exactly what it’s like to be on the field. And if the 2015 season is any indication, accountability will be handled by the league much differently going forward.
But it all starts and ends with Goodell. As I said, Goodell is not fond of officiating, regardless of what he’s said in public, and he certainly didn’t like dealing with officiating lockouts, which the league has had to handle twice since 2001. That’s why the senior vice president of officiating has to stand up for his officials.
Clearly, I faced negative situations during my time that had people in the league office very upset, but I did not let the league go too far, as evidenced by these next two key moments. The first took place in week 16 of the 2001 season. Referee Terry McAulay had a game between the Jaguars and Browns in Cleveland.
Here are the basics. There were less than two minutes left in the game, and the Browns had the ball but were trailing. Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch completed a fourth-down pass that appeared to be a first down, but with no timeouts left, the clock continued to run. Couch ran up to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball for the next play, and after the ball got spiked, the officials signaled the replay official had buzzed down right about the same time as the ball was snapped.
McAulay and his umpire, Carl Paganelli, said that they felt the buzz, and both felt it came right before the snap. McAulay reversed the call because it was clearly incomplete, and because it was a fourth-down play, the ball was awarded to Jacksonville, essentially ending the game.
Cleveland fans went crazy. They felt the play shouldn’t have been reviewed because the ball had been snapped. But you could not prove it. It’s about the only area in officiating where there’s nothing visible to prove when it happened. There’s no light that goes on when the buzzer is hit by the replay official—such as, by contrast, the red light that goes off on the shot clock in the NBA.
It was McAulay, Paganelli, and the replay official’s word, and I was certainly going to support them. I had to, because I couldn’t prove them wrong.
What happened next became known as “Bottlegate.” Fans were so upset that they threw bottles and other objects on the field, and because McAulay feared for the health and safety of his crew, as well as the players, he took the players off the field and said the game was over, even though there were 48 seconds left in the game.
However, McAulay didn’t have the authority to do that. McAulay could have temporarily suspended the game, but he had no right to end the game. That purview falls under the power of the commissioner. The league got on the phone with McAulay and told him he had to get the teams back on the field and finish the final 48 meaningless seconds.
We were dealing with an issue that we had never dealt with before—not being able to prove when the officials were buzzed. I didn’t give McAulay or his crew a downgrade for reviewing the play because I couldn’t prove when they were buzzed. However, in the era of the system of accountability, I gave McAulay a downgrade, an incorrect mechanic for taking teams off the field. Goodell was not satisfied. He wanted McAulay suspended. Suspend him for what? Because he took the teams off the field temporarily while everything but the kitchen sink was being thrown at them? Granted, he shouldn’t have announced the game was over, and I gave him the accountability of the downgrade, but I wasn’t going to suspend him. I did, however, write him a letter that basically outlined that while the situation was unusual, he was not to do it again. If he did, I told him further discipline would be taken. Believe me, Terry McAulay is a bright man and will never come close to doing that again.
Goodell persisted, but I refused to give in. What happened next was anything but good. The conversation escalated, and when he was down in front of my office, with others present, he was so frustrated and, I’m sure, getting so much heat from Cleveland that he gave me a hard shove into my door to try and continue the argument about McAulay in my office. Quite frankly, it startled me, and I think it startled him a little because the discussion ended shortly after that.
Despite that, I stood my ground and refused to suspend McAulay. It would have been the wrong thing to do. Even though I worked for the league, I still managed the 119 officials. You have to support your “players,” including sticking to your guns when you get shoved by your boss—who, by the way, wasn’t yet commissioner then. He was the executive vice president and chief operating officer.
Goodell was, however, the commissioner the next time he wanted to overly discipline an official. At least I got a seven-year reprieve to recover from “the shove” before Goodell-Pereira Round 2 took place. Hey, everything has a nickname in sports, why not me?
It was the second week of the 2008 season, and this one involved perhaps the most recognized referee in the game, Ed Hochuli.
Again, the basics: the game took place in Denver between the Broncos and Chargers. The Chargers were leading, and as the game was nearing an end, Denver quarterback Jay Cutler rolled out, and as he started to pass the ball, it came loose in his hand.
Hochuli ruled that it was an incomplete pass. But when the first replays were shown, you could clearly see it was a fumble and not an incomplete pass. Although replay allowed Hochuli to reverse the ruling of an incomplete pass to a fumble, the ball was dead as soon as it hit the ground. And the defense was not allowed to recover.
And Hochuli knew it. There was nothing he could do to give the ball to the Chargers. So instead of San Diego getting the ball and letting the clock run out to win the game, Denver got to keep the ball and scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to win the game.
It was a huge missed call by Hochuli, and he was devastated. I gave him the maximum downgrade because he made an error in judgment. Remember, it was just Week 2, and because of the type of downgrade it was—he and his crew cost the Chargers a game—I was curious how it would affect them. Because sometimes the impact of a mistake like that can linger for weeks.
But Hochuli and his crew rebounded and had an unbelievable rest of the season—13 great games that took them from the bottom of the heap after Week 2 and put them near the top at the end of the regular season. So I put them in the playoffs.
When I took the playoff assignments to Goodell to approve, he told me that Hochuli was not to be in the playoffs, based upon the call he made in Week 2. It wasn’t quite Goodell-Pereira “The Rematch,” but I argued. I couldn’t in good conscience keep them out of the playoffs. I’d be sending a message to every crew out there that if they made a critical mistake at the beginning of the year, even if they battled back to have a better overall season than most crews, they’d be held out of the playoffs. That wouldn’t have been fair, because they had earned the right to make it under the system.
I told Goodell I wouldn’t do it.
Excerpted with permission from After Further Review: My Life Including the Infamous, Controversial, and Unforgettable Calls that Changed the NFL by Mike Pereira and Rick Jaffe, copyright 2016, Triumph Books.