Why did ref ‘wipe mustard’ off his shirt? Mike Pereira on NFL officials’ secret signals

Mike Pereira's 'controversial' take on wild Raiders-Chiefs finish that tested officials

Mike Pereira, Fox Sports rules analyst and the former NFL head of officiating, breaks down the calls made at the end of the Oakland Raiders' 31-30 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday, October 19, 2017.
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Mike Pereira, Fox Sports rules analyst and the former NFL head of officiating, breaks down the calls made at the end of the Oakland Raiders' 31-30 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday, October 19, 2017.

Each week throughout the NFL season, Mike Pereira, the league’s former vice president of officiating, will answer readers’ questions about officiating and league rules.

To put your questions up to Pereira’s review, email them to and include your name and location in the submission.

Q: Sometimes I see officials do the rolling fists “false start” signal between plays, and wondered why. I asked around and found it means the special fumble rule is in effect. Also, sometimes officials gesture as if they’re wiping mustard off their shirts, and it means a player with an ineligible number is checking in as an eligible receiver. Neither of these signals are in the rule book. What other “secret” signals are there?

– Adam Pavlik, Lansing, Mich.

A: Adam, you’re pretty observant. There are quite a few signals that actually are not in the rule book, and you highlighted two of them.

That rolling of the hands is a universal signal. It’s an actual penalty signal for things like illegal formation, false start, kickoff out of bounds and a kicking team player voluntarily going out of bounds on a punt. But when you do see it in a non-penalty situation, it means that either by time or down, only the fumbling player may recover his fumble and advance. If it goes out of bounds or is recovered by a teammate, the ball comes back to the spot of the fumble. Hello, Dave Casper. It is always the Raiders!

You’re right about wiping mustard off the striped shirt. It simply states that there is a player playing an ineligible position wearing an eligible number. The signal notifies the defense of this numbering exception. By the way, the referee will make a verbal announcement if it is not a kicking play.

But there are others. How about the “hang loose, brotha” signal? You might see that from the three deep officials who are lined up in the defensive secondary. Those officials are responsible for counting the defensive players. The twitching of the thumb and pinkie fingers is confirming to each other that the proper number of defenders are on the field.

In college, you might see an official on the line of scrimmage holding his arm straight backward into the offensive backfield before the snap. That means that the widest player in the formation on his side of the line is lined up off the line of scrimmage making him a back. Five backs is a no-no.

How about the one where the official puts his hand over his ear that contains an ear piece? That might mean, “I need help.” He might be asking for guidance. Just kidding, kind of.

Q: I believe the rules state a player cannot signal for a fair catch on an onside kickoff attempt in which the kicker bounces the ball into the ground. It hardly seems fair when a kicker can bounce a 10-yard kick straight into the air and a potential receiver can be hit by the opposing team’s players before he has an opportunity to make the catch. This could also pose a strong case for serious injury.

– Mike Cummer, Sacramento

A: Good point, Mike. A player can signal for a fair catch on a kickoff if the ball is not kicked into the ground, but not when it is kicked into the turf.

I do agree that it is a safety issue, enough so that the NFL’s competition committee has discussed it and the NCAA adopted a rule that allows a receiver to signal for a fair catch if the ball is kicked directly into the ground and that first bounce is a high bounce.

Will the NFL follow? I don’t think it will. It’s tough to protect a receiver when the kicking team member is eligible to recover.

Q: Who (or what) is the final arbiter when the field crew disagrees on the interpretation of a rule?

– Andrew Gaynor, Sacramento

A: The referee is the crew chief. But if there’s anyone that questions him, he will listen.

The rule book is complicated, but misenforcing a penalty is not acceptable. When I was vice president of officiating in the NFL, I expected perfection in this area. It’s the responsibility of all seven officials on the field to make sure that the rules are enforced properly. Nowadays, you can also get input from the replay official and from the current vice president of officiating in New York.

If a rule is misapplied, all seven on-field officials are held accountable and downgraded. If, after the referee listens to all input and there is still a disagreement, he will side with one of them. It’s usually the one who feels the strongest.

Mike Pereira is a rules analyst for Fox Sports who lives in Sacramento.