Here's the deal, football fans: NFL officials are going to mess up. Calls will be missed. Others will be made that shouldn't have been.
Even the league knows that — and it wants to make sure you remember, too.
"Certainly there have been some calls we wish had not caused so much attention," NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson said in a telephone interview Friday. "When things are going 100 mph, at game speed and with game pressure, sometimes mistakes are going to be made. When it comes to officiating, fans apparently tend to be less forgiving."
Thanks to a handful of eyebrow-raising calls in these playoffs, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's mention of a proposal to start hiring some game officials as full-time employees, the men in black-and-white striped shirts are a topic of conversation heading into the Ravens-Patriots and Giants-49ers conference championship games Sunday.
"We're never completely satisfied. We certainly think we can do better, and are certainly hoping all the crews remaining will do better in the games upcoming," Anderson said. "We want to make sure that the whole officiating body is performing at the highest level. We would prefer to have calls ... not take center stage for the entire next week."
Mike Pereira was NFL vice president of officiating from 2001-09, and nothing ate at him more than the prospect of a blown call in the Big Game.
"That's always a concern. The eyes of the world are upon you. The Super Bowl is clearly your most important game for a lot of reasons, including how officiating is going to be perceived," Pereira said. "I went through all those Super Bowls where, I mean, I sat in the operations booth and I was nervous as a cat, because you know you're in the spotlight, and you just beg not to be a part of the discussion when the game is over."
In the Giants' 37-20 upset of the reigning champion Packers last weekend, there were a couple of rulings that stood out: A phantom blow-to-the-head penalty on New York defensive lineman Osi Umenyiora, and a "He fumbled the ball; no, wait, he didn't; upon further review, we'll stick with no fumble" call on a play involving Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings.
Both benefited the Packers and both baffled plenty of observers.
The Jennings call drew the most notice.
"I thought the officiating was really on a roll, and then it got to the game in Green Bay. And that obviously painted a different picture," said Pereira, who appears on Fox's NFL telecasts. "You had a lack of a replay reversal that 99 percent of the country, including me, thought would be reversed."
And yet, Giants coach Tom Coughlin said, "I doubt there will be any explanation at all" from the league.
Among other curious calls this postseason were the whistle that brought action to a halt before the Lions got a chance to return a fumble in their 45-28 loss to the Saints, and a lateral by the Steelers mistakenly thought to be an incomplete forward pass in their 29-23 overtime loss to the Broncos.
The good news for the league is the outcome of those games weren't affected. But there have been other, more pivotal, officiating decisions in postseasons past.
One example: This week marks the 10th anniversary of the "Tuck Rule Game," when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady appeared to fumble the football in the last two minutes while trailing the Oakland Raiders, who recovered. Eventually, it was ruled an incomplete pass; New England retained possession, tied the score, and wound up winning in overtime.
One more: The last time the 49ers and Giants met in the playoffs, in January 2003, San Francisco rallied to win 39-38. In the final 10 seconds, the Giants lined up for a go-ahead field-goal attempt. But there was a bad snap, and the holder tried to throw a pass downfield to guard Rich Seubert, who had been announced as an eligible receiver. Before the ball arrived, Seubert was knocked down by a 49ers player, but another Giants lineman was penalized for being downfield illegally, and the game ended. A day later, the NFL — Pereira, actually — apologized, saying the correct call would have been offsetting penalties, allowing the Giants another kick.
"The reality is that things happen in 1/26th of a second in real time, and officials have to make judgment calls real quick," Pereira says now, "and you don't get a second chance. So there's going to be inconsistency."
Meeting with fans before one of last weekend's playoff games, Goodell was asked a question about consistency in officiating, and he responded by saying the league will consider making about 10 officials full-time employees next season. They would be part of game crews and also spend time at the league's New York headquarters.
Currently, all 120 or so game officials are part-time employees.
"Consistency is exactly what every club wants, and I think every fan wants. You want consistency in the way rules are applied," Goodell said.
In the past, the NFL's Anderson said, concerns were raised that it would be too expensive to make any officials year-round employees in a roughly six-month sport. But, he said, that's "not a barrier anymore. ... New people on the scene, including myself, are of the opinion that those types of impediments can be overcome under the right circumstances."
The league's collective bargaining agreement with officials expires during the upcoming offseason, so it could make sense to try to switch some now to full time.
"That's an idea we've been thinking about for some time," Anderson said. "There's a lot of potential positives in terms of upgrading the communication and communicating points of emphasis ... particularly with regard to the critical calls."
Pereira cautioned against overreacting to a play such as Jennings' from last weekend, estimating officials get about a half-dozen ultimate rulings wrong among the 315 or so times instant replay is used throughout a season.
And there are some who are impressed by how many calls are made correctly.
"I'm not one to harp on officiating very much," said NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, who won one Super Bowl and played in two others. "Some of those bang-bang plays, it's hard to tell. ... The game is so fast. And to get as many right as they do? They impress me."
There are all sorts of factors involved, including what replay angles are available from whichever TV network is showing a particular game.
In Philadelphia 35-31 loss at Atlanta in Week 2 of the regular season, for example, a second-half pass from Michael Vick was intercepted by Kelvin Hayden, who made a diving grab, got up and ran 2 yards before he was tackled. NBC showed three replays before the Falcons ran the next play, but none made clear whether the ball bounced before Hayden caught it, so Eagles coach Andy Reid decided not to challenge the call. The Falcons quickly scored a touchdown.
During a commercial break after that TD, NBC found a fourth replay, which showed Hayden didn't make a clean catch. That replay eventually was aired on TV — but by then it was too late, of course, for Reid to throw his red flag. An NBC producer later apologized to the team.
And, well, as Anderson and Pereira point out, the occasional mea culpa is bound to be needed.
"We have to recognize that the game is played by players, it is coached by coaches, and it is officiated by officials, and they're all human beings; they're all going to make mistakes. And the only of those groups held to a standard of expected perfection is the group of officials. And it's not going to happen," Pereira said.
"Players drop passes. Coaches make bad calls. And officials are going to miss calls," he added. "Officiating needs to improve — and it's going to improve — but as you look into the future, you're never going to make it perfect."
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley in Santa Clara, Calif., and Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J., contributed to this report.