NEW YORK — Just past 1 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon in late October, on the fifth floor of the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters, eight games spring to life on 42 television screens surrounding a glass-enclosed command center.
Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino and former referee Alberto Riveron hover over a dozen casually dressed subordinates, mostly guys in their 20s and 30s munching cafeteria tacos and chicken fingers, hunched over keyboards. Abbreviated shouts pierce the cacophony of broadcasters on surround sound, chronicling the resumption of Week 7 right down to the minute.
“Kickoff in Jacksonville!”
“Kick in Atlanta!”
Five of the games start one minute later than the 1:02 p.m. script, a minor lapse catalogued for future compliance.
The league scrutinizes every detail of its $9 billion product within these walls, where executives hardwired to stadium crews and network officials in production trucks strive to ensure game presentation adheres to its highest standard.
The command center was built in 2002 to identify and smooth warts in game operations. Workers document scoring plays, penalties, injuries, replay reviews, uniform violations ... “anything that's noteworthy about a game,” says Jay Manahan, who manages the game-day staff.
The raw data are reviewed throughout the week to issue supplemental discipline such as fines or suspensions, explain controversial calls for coaches seeking rules clarifications and maintain consistent standards of enforcement.
Referees communicate with replay officials in press boxes, who are in contact with the command center in New York. Unlike the NHL, where replay officials in Toronto have authority to affirm or nullify scoring decisions made in arenas all over North America, NFL referees remain the ultimate arbiters when they emerge from underneath the hood.
“Game operations problems or coach-to-player headsets are the extent to which we get involved,” Blandino said during an earlier telephone interview.
“We listen to the announcers to make sure they're providing proper rules interpretations. They can give their opinions. That's not for us to dictate. But we want them to quote the rules right and with the proper clarification so people can put into the right context whatever major concern there is.”
Blandino has spent his entire professional career in football officiating, joining the NFL after graduating in 1993 from Hofstra University. He also is an entrepreneur.
Blandino was an NFL instant replay official from 1999 to 2003 and founded his company, “Under the Hood,” four years ago to provide training for football officiating clients from the NFL, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 conferences.
He returned to the NFL in 2012 as VP of officiating and also supervises the instant replay program. He is liaison to the competition committee, which authorizes rules changes, and is on the other end of the telephone on Mondays when aggrieved head coaches call to vent.
“We have an open-door policy that serves a formal review process,” he said. “Coaches can send up to 10 plays via our website. They'll call with questions about a play. We'll clarify it or point out if their player was or was not called for a foul properly. There's a lot of situations we may disagree with on-field judgments. It certainly happens time to time.”
Cathy Yancy, senior director of broadcasting, is seated at a conference table in the middle of the room. She faces a wall with 24 high-definition screens showing raw broadcast feeds from the game telecasts, the NFL Network's studio show and DirecTV's “Red Zone” feed.
She is responsible for making sure commercial breaks are taken at the right times and that teams provide player and coach access in compliance with contractual rights negotiated by television networks that have invested $27 billion in the NFL through 2022.
Yancy is the only woman in a room of two dozen men.
“I've spent my entire career in sports, so this is not at all unusual,” she said. “I get paid to watch NFL games. I think there would be a lot of people who would be jealous about the job I have.
Before the first commercial break, a big play erupts in the Panthers-Rams game.
“Interception Carolina, returned for a touchdown!” Jon Ferrari shouts from his viewing pod.
“Did he step out?” Riveron asks as he sidles up to the replays.
“He may have. No, he sidestepped it,” Ferrari responds.
“Yeah, he was close,” Riveron notes, confirming Captain Munnerlyn's 45-yard score.
During a lull in the broadcast from Charlotte, N.C., Ferrari talks about his job.
“You've just got to stay locked in on it, take it seriously,” he said. “You're not watching it for pleasure; you're watching it for (quality control). I don't really think about it like I'm sitting in my living room.”
This is Riveron's first season as an administrator after spending nine seasons on the field, four as a side judge and the past five as a referee. He still is wearing stripes: a purple-and-navy blue Polo shirt, with jeans and sneakers.
Riveron is Blandino's eyes and ears on the floor, distilling rules and enforcement for the observers to log. Three minutes after the Carolina touchdown, the scenario repeats at the Georgia Dome.
“Fumble Tampa, touchdown Atlanta!” exclaims Russell Giglio.
“Another defensive touchdown?” Riveron reacts somewhat surprised.
“Yep. Fumble by (Tampa Bay quarterback Mike) Glennon on the sack. Clean recovery, no question about it,” Giglio reports.
“It was clean?” Riveron quizzes.
“Yeah, good play by Atlanta,” Giglio says.
“Yep,” Riveron confirms following replays. “He's clean.”
With eight to 10 games typically scheduled early on Sundays, Blandino needs to keep his head on a swivel.
“It's fun, but it's also stressful. You want everything to go smoothly. We're just prepared for everything,” he said.
Such as two interception returns for touchdowns and replay reviews on top of each other?
“Especially in the 1 o'clock window, you can have multiple things going on,” he said. “It's a little unusual to have two interceptions returned for a touchdown — back to back — but that can happen when you have eight games going on.”
Suddenly there is a rustle in the Lions-Bengals pod.
“Big play in Detroit, touchdown Cincinnati — 82 yards!” announces Troy Somero.
Bengals receiver A.J. Green has just hauled in a scoring pass from Andy Dalton at Ford Field. No flags. No controversy. Cincinnati leads 7-0.
But there is a small glitch on FOX's broadcast.
The clock is malfunctioning on the screen graphic. Yancy is on the telephone with stadium officials in Detroit.
“The clock is working from the stadium, but the feed to the truck is out,” she said after hanging up. “They put a camera on the stadium clock there, which is kind of creative.”
Manahan is Blandino's field general in the minutia of regulations that not only govern the competition but how players can act and dress on the field.
Moments before kickoff he leads a video tutorial on IHRs — shorthand for involuntary helmet removal — cuing up an instance in which St. Louis Rams left tackle Jake Long violated Section 3, Article 1, Subset H.
“Right there,” Manahan says, freeze-framing the infraction. “Write that down, please.”
Next Manahan plays a clip from an earlier Arizona-San Francisco game in which a FOX sideline microphone broadcast a slew of profanities, a discretion that draws Yancy's ire.
“If the mic is on for an extended period, please let Cathy know so we can make a note of it,” he says before wrapping up his pregame speech.
“Watch your games. Watch your replays. Kickoff's in two minutes.”