Somewhere, a referee is about to miss a call

Saturday, December 14, 2002

News that NFL referees blew nine calls in one game was never news to the league office. There, it was just another reminder that nobody beats the law of averages.

A day after two Minnesota newspapers reported getting hold of a confidential league memo to the Vikings, NFL officials confirmed the gory details: The officiating crew working Green Bay's 26-22 win Sunday over Minnesota committed more faux pas than you could spot in back-to-back episodes of "Elimidate."

Vikings officials actually submitted a dozen examples for review, but the league only acknowledged nine mistakes. Included, however, were a staggering, stumbling, bumbling eight in the final quarter, one on the next-to-last play that touched off a melee, and one on the final play probably thrown in for good measure.

Still, it wasn't news to the NFL because the league already knows the first law of refereeing. Anyone who's ever worked a game at any level from Pop Warner to the pros knows it, too: Somewhere on the planet, at every moment, in games big and small, a ref missed a call or is about to.

It might be a Little League game in Florida in late spring, a World Cup soccer match in Korea in summer, or -- as happened in this case -- on the semi-frozen tundra of Green Bay last weekend with the Vikings trying to hold off a desperate, late-charging home team.

Blown calls have triggered riots and wars, but most of the time, thankfully, nothing more serious than upset stomachs. The real danger to officiating is when those blown calls come in clusters, piling up like wrecked cars in a chain-collision credibility crash that becomes impossible to ignore.

This weekend the gapers' block ringed the NFL. Two months ago, it was college football, specifically the Big Ten Conference. A handful of close calls against Penn State in a few early games had coach Joe Paterno spitting fire.

Ignoring all the calls that had gone his way over the years, JoePa questioned not just the competence of some league officials, but their integrity. After a tough overtime loss to Michigan, Paterno said, "You try not to be paranoid," then turned around and repeated hearsay that officiating crew members who lived in Michigan were meeting in secret like some kind of cabal.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany finally addressed those allegations on Oct. 17, but only after first ordering gags for all conference officials and supervisors. That same day, NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira, a former college official, agreed to stand in for his beleaguered brothers during a telephone interview.

"I know how they feel," he said. "I got the daylights beaten out of me last weekend."

On a typical weekend, Pereira examines videotape from every game and typically culls a half-dozen or so calls most likely to cause controversy. He previews them for NFL officials by noon Monday, so nobody in the front office gets blindsided when teams request reviews of specific calls later that day.

"Officiating is a part of the game and the guys in stripes are just like the guys in uniforms," he said. "Guys fumble balls and throw away passes and, frankly, guys in stripes have bad games, too.

"It's hard enough to explain when they happen one at a time, but every once in a while, they come in a cluster. And that," Pereira said, "is when the going gets tough."

In that sense, it's always a numbers game. There's about 1,500 plays in an average NFL week and most experts agree between four and five dicey calls per game. Pereira believes instant replay has cut significantly into that total. But he also concedes his crew is no more likely to be perfect than the players whose performances they're supposed to be dissecting.

"In a 17-week regular season, we might see three times where the calls cluster. That's a problem. But have a couple weeks like that in a row and now what you've got," he said, "is a disaster."

Like the Cincinnati Bengals, say. Unlike the Bengals, though, Pereira's crew of 119 can't afford three bad weeks in a row, let alone an entire season.

"That's what it comes down to," he said. "The levels of accountability are worlds apart. You rarely see the blame for a loss get hung on one player because of one play. But let a ref blow a call late in a game and that's the only thing anybody wants to talk about."

Pereira sometimes gets through tough times by recalling something a smart coach once said.

"He told me the best teams learn to play through mistakes. And not just their own, but his and mine, too," he said with a laugh.

Jim Litke is a columnist for The Associated Press.

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