Sacramento’s Mike Pereira, a former NFL referee and head of NFL referees, is a rules analyst for Fox Sports. He’s writing a weekly column for The Sacramento Bee throughout the playoffs.
The Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots arrived in Houston to much fanfare as Super Bowl week kicked off.
On Thursday a third team will arrive, albeit without much notice. A crew of seven on-field NFL officials and the replay assistant will touch down in southern Texas to begin preparations for the biggest game of their professional careers – Super Bowl LI.
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NFL officials strive to reach this pinnacle every season. It’s the chance to work the biggest game, in front of the most people, with everything on the line. If they succeed, no one will read a thing about them on Monday. If they fail, officiating will be a topic of conversation and debate throughout the offseason. This is how much is at stake for Super Bowl officials. The pressure is excruciating.
As with the players, nothing is normal for game officials during Super Bowl week. Throughout the regular season and the playoffs, officials arrive a day before the game. Not this week. The league has traditionally hosted a dinner on Thursday for the officials and their families to celebrate their accomplishment. Friday is pretty much of a day on their own, although meetings are scheduled with Fox Sports, which will televise the game, and there’s a walkthrough at the stadium to rehearse the coin toss.
93 Years of NFL officiating experience of the seven-man crew for Sunday’s Super Bowl
It is the Super Bowl. Nothing is left to chance. Well, almost nothing. The last time Houston hosted the title game – Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 – the NFL was not prepared for Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction during her infamous halftime performance with Justin Timberlake. Nor was the league prepared for the lights going out in New Orleans during Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.
On Saturday, the crew gets down to business and begins preparing. It will not be the first time the officials have worked together. Five of the seven worked the Steelers-Chiefs AFC divisional playoff game at Kansas City. The other two worked the Texans-Patriots AFC divisional game at New England.
The seven officials have combined to work 64 playoff games and have 93 years of NFL refereeing experience. Four of them – referee Carl Cheffers, umpire Dan Ferrell, side judge Dyrol Prioleau and back judge Todd Prukop – are working their first Super Bowl. Head linesman Kent Payne, line judge Jeff Seeman and field judge Doug Rosenbaum have worked the big game before. Officials must have five full seasons of experience and must be rated in the top tier of their position to be even considered for the Super Bowl. The replay official, Tom Sifferman, officiated three consecutive Super Bowls during his days on the field. This is his first assignment at replay.
Sunday is a long day. While head of officiating years ago, I tried to make the day as normal as any other Sunday in the NFL. Fat chance. More than 100 footballs, about twice the number used in any other game, are prepared. On almost every change of possession, a new ball is rotated into the game and the “retired” ball is given away as a souvenir or used as a raffle prize.
NFL officials strive to reach this pinnacle every season. It’s the chance to work the biggest game, in front of the most people, with everything on the line. If they succeed, no one will read a thing about them on Monday. If they fail, officiating will be a topic of conversation and debate throughout the offseason.
For many years, new footballs were used on each play of the Super Bowl. This was practiced until 120 balls were used. But quick-paced offenses and quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning put an end to that.
Then there is the Super Bowl halftime. It is twice as long as a regular-season halftime to allow for the elaborate performance – this year it’s Lady Gaga and the cast of “Hamilton.” The whole day is just different. For some fans watching on TV, it is about watching the commercials and the halftime show. For the officials, it is about adapting and trying to focus on the game.
So with all the preparation and the pressure, you would think officiating the Super Bowl would reward officials with a big payday. While the money is certainly good ($13,500), it’s not a lot more than most of them made for each of their regular-season games. But that doesn’t matter. What matters most is the ring they get for reaching the pinnacle of their profession. Just like players from the winning team, officials get a Super Bowl ring. While they may not be as massive as those awarded to the players, they’re big enough to impress former classmates at the next high school reunion.
They wear them with pride. As with players, football fans stop officials wearing Super Bowl rings and ask to take a closer look. In the end, it is not what goes into the wallet. It is about what goes on the finger.
It’s all about the ring.