Mike Carey was supposed to be CBS’s answer to Mike Pereira, FOX’s popular officiating expert. His two seasons on the job haven’t quite gone as planned. The referee-turned-broadcaster on the avalanche of criticism he receives in his new job, and the state of officiating in the NFL
A running storyline during the 2015 NFL season was CBS officiating expert Mike Carey’s ability—or inability—to correctly analyze the calls being made on the field. During CBS’s Super Bowl 50 broadcast, that criticism once again reared its head. Carey was called on just once during the broadcast, on an incomplete pass from Cam Newton to Jerricho Cotchery that was challenged by Panthers coach Ron Rivera. Carey said on-air that it was a good challenge by Carolina, and that if he were in the booth, he would reverse it to a catch. A few seconds later, referee Clete Blakeman announced to the stadium that the call would stand as an incomplete pass—setting off a barrage of tweets about Carey being wrong again.
Blakeman’s decision has itself been scrutinized in the days after Carolina’s 24-10 loss, particularly after NFL Films microphones caught Blakeman telling Rivera that if the pass had been ruled complete on the field, that call would have also stood. The situation highlights the public denunciation of NFL officiating this season—whether directed at the on-the-field refs, or Carey, or the complicated NFL rulebook. Very often, it feels like the “Who’s on First?” routine, where it’s hard to know what the correct call is, or should be. The week before the Super Bowl, The MMQB talked to Carey, an NFL official for 24 years, about the officiating crisis of 2015—for him, and for the NFL.
VRENTAS: You have a tough job…
VRENTAS: I’m sure you’ve heard some of the criticism of you this season.
CAREY: This season? I’ve been doing this for 24 years. In two years on CBS, there is not a game that doesn’t go by without criticism.
VRENTAS: Do you hear it? How do you handle it?
CAREY: I don’t live in a vacuum. But I think about how well I perform on each play, then what I try to do is analyze what I need to correct, and I try to correct it. No different than anything else I do.
VRENTAS: How do you feel you have done? Do you have a “hit rate” for the calls that you make?
CAREY: I know what [a hit rate] is because I have been inundated with it. There are plays I would like to have back; there are a couple days I would like to have back, for that matter. But not unlike all the other experts who chose who was going to win the AFC Championship, I make errors. Everybody makes errors. But when you look at the record, I am happy with how I have synced up with New York’s reviews of plays. We’re about 90 percent [matching with the league office]. It is curious though, that whenever I disagree, in this day of high criticism of officiating, and New York is right 100 percent of the time? But I’m happy to be the lightning rod for the officials on the field.
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VRENTAS: What is the process like for analyzing a call during a broadcast?
CAREY: As opposed to what it was like on the field? Well, if it’s just a normal play, holding or not holding, whatever replay they show I get and I comment on. When it comes to be a replay to review, it’s drastically different than it was when I was on the field. When I’m on the field, I go to the box and I tell them exactly what I want to see, and then I tell them to freeze it or roll it slowly. When I’m on TV, I’m subject to whatever they show, so I don’t have any control there. But it is part of the process.
VRENTAS: So you don’t have the same resources at your disposal now?
CAREY: No, but you’ve still gotta be good at what you do.
VRENTAS: You received scrutiny for your analysis of a play in the AFC Championship Game, when you suggested that Peyton Manning’s backwards pass would be ruled an incompletion not a fumble.
CAREY: Yeah that’s one of those I’d like to have back. I just think there was enough there to process that it’s just one of those that I made a mistake on, that’s all.
VRENTAS: What about the Kam Chancellor interception in Week 12? You thought it should be ruled an incompletion instead but the turnover stood after replay.
CAREY: That was another one I’d like to get back. You’re finding all the ones I want back. That’s one of those days I wish I hadn’t gotten out of bed.
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VRENTAS: During your 24 years as an on-field NFL official, you were well-respected and served as referee of Super Bowl XLII. Why is it worth it to you to open yourself up to criticism as a broadcaster?
CAREY: Here’s what I think: The most important thing is not whether I agree with New York, or if I am correct and they are incorrect. It’s trying to give the fan a body of knowledge of what are the details and the thought processes and the rules that go into making what those decisions are. That’s more important from my point of view than my scoring record. The opportunity to help educate fans about what the rules are and what the officials are going through at that time. Nobody had really that much insight into that until Mike [Pereira] showed up on the scene. So I’m trying to do the best I can to enhance that.
VRENTAS: Do you feel in Mike’s shadow at all?
CAREY: We both have two legs and two arms, so we’re going to be compared all the time. We both went to college together. He was on my crew for two years before he went in the league office. He was my boss for 10 years, so it’s kind of hard to erase the Mike and Mike show.
VRENTAS: There is an underlying question to all the criticism, and that is: How accurate is the replay process?
CAREY: Anything has its margins of error. The most important thing is how you can be consistent at it. I do think the way the league is approaching it, by having a centralized collaborative input into the game, is going to be more consistent. It’s not going to be right all the time, but it will be consistently correct or incorrect, and it will get better I think incrementally, instead of having 17 officials make a different call every week.
VRENTAS: Do you feel scrutiny of officiating is at an all-time high?
CAREY: Yeah, but I knew what I was getting into when I started.
VRENTAS: Why is that?
CAREY: Well, look, you’ve got so much more access, the game’s popularity is higher than it has ever been, and just think about the TV coverage. You’ve got super high definition, 4K and now 5K super slow motion. You have incredible shots of things that never have been seen before, even though it is only a 2-D medium and nobody realizes that. We’re so used to thinking about it in 3-D, but it is nothing like it looks like on the field.
VRENTAS: Are you still adjusting to making the calls in the broadcast booth vs. on the field?
CAREY: Oh yes. When you are on the field, I am in the game, and that’s a big difference from being removed and trying to observe the game from afar on a flat screen.
VRENTAS: What is the difference in what you have access to in analyzing a call for a Sunday regular-season game vs. Thursday night or a primetime postseason game?
CAREY: Sunday I am in the studio, and I do have more access to being able to slow it down and watch it. But remember, most of the time I’ve got to come on before [the on-field officials] even get into the booths. It’s quicker, so it’s just a more rapid process that I’m becoming more and more accustomed to. On Thursdays, I’m in the booth with Phil [Simms] and Jim [Nantz]. When it happens, it is instant. It’s a fun challenge, but it takes a bit of memorization.
VRENTAS: How much weekly prep work do you put into this job?
CAREY: I haven’t changed it from the way I do it on the field. So you have to be in the rulebook all the time, because it is a very complex document. It’s a dynamic document and it changes depending on what type of play action you have. If you’re not in it every day, you’ll make more mistakes than you’d ever want to make. So I cut it down to reading the rulebook, thinking about the mechanics, and doing a lot of film work, especially with the catch/no-catch [calls].
VRENTAS: Do you think the catch rule needs to be clarified?
CAREY: Well, two things about it: The competition committee has been very good about how they move the game along, and they are really happy with what it is now. But the gray area has stretched enormously compared to when I came into the league. I came in as a side official, so I was really a catch/no-catch expert, basically. Then, it was: control, two feet, catch. Pretty simple. Very, very tight gray area. Now you have control, two feet, then you have to be able to ward off a defender, or enough time to really do that. And you have to decide, is the receiver going to the ground or not? So there are a complex number of things you have to think about. I do believe that once they codify it and the fan becomes familiar with what it is, it will be better understood, and it will be more consistent about how it is applied from an officiating and replay standpoint.
VRENTAS: You’ve mentioned the training program for NFL officials is a little outdated. How can it improve?
CAREY: More collaborative time spent. The league is moving toward that, don’t get me wrong. But it has been the same process for decades. It is just going to take more attention to that detail and they have structured the league office to start to do that. The crews spend time together, all week long the crew chief is working with his crew, but then you have 17 cells and their only point of real contact is the referees’ contact with the league office and a training tape. How that gets interpreted and applied in that next game can be a little bit different depending on each one of those crew chiefs. We do that as a group at a national clinic in July, but that only happens once a year, and there are only three or four days that crews work with teams on the field during training camps. I think most of the disconnect is the ability of the officials to be able to engage with the coaches and the players in training camp to make sure they understand what is or isn’t going to be called. There is more disconnect there than there is among the officials, or between the officials and the league. Players will conform better if they know exactly what needs to be done on a consistent basis.
VRENTAS: Would you be in favor of full-time officials?
CAREY: Yes, but it has to be done very systematically because if you went automatically to full-time crews, you would lose most of your best officials. The way the process is now, you have to be successful in your job wherever that is to get into the league, and some of these guys are making seven figures. To try to pry them away from those jobs might be kind of tough.
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VRENTAS: Before the Super Bowl, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus acknowledged some of the criticism you’ve faced and called it hurtful. What did his public support mean?
CAREY: It’s enormously important. I’m a CEO of a company [Carey is a co-founder of Seirus, a company that produces winter sport equipment] and I know well that everybody likes to feel like they are worthwhile, and when it comes from the head person, then it makes a big difference. You have to feel good about yourself, but it doesn’t hurt to have the boss say you are OK, too.