TV NFL rules analysts on taunting, other issues as playoffs approach

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

FLOWERY BRANCH -- As the NFL tries to fight through the new COVID-19 protocols while hurtling its way toward the playoffs, television rules analyst Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino discussed some of the pressing rules issues around the league.

Pereira, 71, after serving as the NFL’s vice president of officiating, joined Fox Sports in 2010 and has watched the position evolve.

When he worked with the league, part of his job was dealing with the networks and helping to explain the rules and points of emphasis before the season started. He would field questions from the network’s analysts.

“They would set up this room that I would be like in the middle of a square,” Pereira said. “I would do the standards of going over the new rules and the points of emphasis and then open up, and then Troy Aikman would kill me.”

When Pereira retired from the NFL after the 2009 season, David Hill called and offered him a job with Fox Sports.

“He told me you’re not retiring,” Pereira said. “You’re going to come with us, and we’re going to create something that is going to be magical. Something that’s has never been done before.”

Hill wanted an officiating voice initially for the internet.

“There was really no discussion about being on air and available for the rules situation that may come up, but then by the time Week 1 rolled around, I was sitting in front of a monitor, and I was going to be available if something kind of crazy happened,” Pereira said.

It didn’t take long to put Pereira to work. The league’s pass-catching rules were being tested at the time.

“Lo and behold, Calvin Johnson caught what everybody in the world thought was a touchdown pass to win the game for Detroit against Chicago,” Pereira said. “They came to me, and I explained why it was ruled incomplete and why it would stay incomplete.”

Official Gene Steratore, after review, determined that the ruling on the field would stand as incomplete.

“There was my role,” Pereira said. “That became my role because it was somebody who explained the rule and then the officials did what he said they were going to do. Even the NFL was happy because I took the heat off of the officials and put it on to the rule. That’s how we basically started.”

Terry McAuley, a former NFL official for 20 years, is NBC’s rule analyst. Steratore is the rules analyst for CBS.

Of course, Pereira knew the rules inside-and-out, but a guiding principle when it came to interpretation or a judgment call would what would the “50 people in a bar” think?

“They thought that it was incomplete, then it ought to be incomplete,” Pereira said. “There’s something wrong with the rule. If 50 in a bar saw that and said that’s clearly complete, then it probably should be. But that’s been kind of ongoing kind of mystery of the rules that what seems like common sense and what seems logical is not always the case when you basically apply the rule.”

Over the years, the rules-analyst position had gotten harder because technology in the league office in New York is much better.

“They’ve got the new Hawkeye system, so they see all the camera angles right away,” Pereira said. “So, you’re getting quicker decisions made by the NFL people in New York, which gives us a little bit less time to kind of look at it. … It’s hard because what you’re doing is you’re using your own judgment against someone else’s judgment.”

Even with all of the technology, the calls are not perfect.

“It’s still human judgment,” Pereira said. “I mean, the decisions are still being made by humans, and so you have that gray area that will always be there. That’s part of the beauty of the game.”

The Falcons had an apparent 1-yard touchdown run by Cordarrelle Patterson overturned by replay against the 49ers on Sunday. CBS didn’t go to Steratore for any help on the play.

“Part of, you know, sports is that they are imperfect,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “You have to find a way to overcome those things. Whether I agree or disagree with the call, it doesn’t make a difference. We had to find a way to get the ball in the end zone after that.”

Pereira would like not to take the human element out of the game.

“I’d hate to have seven robots out on the field that may or may not get everything right,” Pereia said. “It’s a human game. I liked that part of it.”

The catch rules have evolved and no longer are as controversial. Taunting is the new hot rules topic is the NFL’s point of emphasis this season.

Falcons president Rich McKay, who’s the chairman of the NFL’s powerful competition committee, said the players union and the NCAA brought the taunting issue to the league’s attention. The NFL would no longer condone player-to-player, in your face-to-face interactions.

The NCAA doesn’t like the NFL’s relaxed celebration rules, that has players doing choregraphed routines and running 60 yards to celebrate a turnover. The old-school “act like you’ve been there before rule” has been obliterated.

“They’re not OK with the taunting side of it, which is the face-to-face player trying to entice another into doing something because they see what happens,” McKay said. “Three plays later, when nobody’s looking, there is something happening and leads to injuries. It leads to ill will and to other things later in the game that fans don’t even see. That’s all we’re trying to target with this emphasis.”

Pereira noted that points of emphasis have more dramatic affect than a rule change.

“So, if you put a point of emphasis on offensive holding, you’re going to get a ton of offensive holding calls,” Pereira said. “If you put a point of emphasis on taunting then you’re going to get 10 times more taunting penalties than you’ve had in the past. The rule didn’t change, but the emphasis did.”

Blandino, 50, was the NFL’s vice president of officiating from 2013-17, before becoming a rules analyst for Fox Sports.

He works out of the Fox command center in Los Angeles and handles college games on Saturdays and NFL games on Sundays.

“When we’re on the air and we’re talking about taunting, we’re talking about a specific thing, here’s why it’s a foul,” Blandino said. “Here’s why the league is emphasizing it. So, you’re always trying to not just understand the what, but the why behind it. I think that’s important for people to understand.”

Pereira likes the point of emphasis on taunting.

“When you’re on the field officiating, when you allow players to get into each other’s space, directly into each other space, the game deteriorates,” Pereira said. “It gets chippy, and then instead of officiating, what you’re doing is you’re just trying to keep players apart.”

The Cassius Marsh taunting call early in this season in the Chicago and Pittsburgh game was controversial.

“He makes the big play, and then he turns and walks toward the opponent’s bench,” Pereira said. “I mean, he walked toward it. I mean, he was still out near the middle of the field and he was flagged and they said that he had a taunting posture. That was never something that we considered in the past.”

The 50 people in the bar were in a uproar over the Marsh call.

“Yeah, that definitely got a lot of attention just because it was such a critical point in the game,” Blandino said. “But this was a tough spot for the officials because, again, the competition committee, the coaches subcommittee, they’re pushing this, this has to be a point of emphasis. We want to clean up some of this stuff that that is unsportsmanlike conduct.”

The NFL told teams not to put officials in a position to call taunting. Make a good play, turn away and celebrate with your team.

While some will contend that officials tend to let more things slide in the playoffs, there likely will not be a drastic change in officiating in the playoffs.

“From my experience, when I was at the league office, you’re always telling officials, ‘Look, you’ve got to set a standard and you have to start Week 1,’” Blandino said. “You can’t change that standard, right? You can’t move the bar because the players and the coaches have adjusted to something. So, you never want your officials as we get later into the season to change how they officiate the game and let more things go or call it more, you know, a little bit tighter.”

The goal is to be consistent and please those 50 people in the bar.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Bow Tie Chronicles

For more content about The Atlanta Falcons

Follow me on Twitter @DOrlandoAJC

On Facebook at Atlanta Falcons News Now

Atlanta Falcons coverage on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution