Published September 17, 2012
It's time to stop playing games with the games.
By now even the casual fan has figured it out it's just not working. The NFL's replacement referees have had their 15 minutes of fame, and can tell everyone back home they worked on the big stage.
That includes the one who shakes his cheerleading pom-poms for the New Orleans Saints, as well as the ref whose previous duties included making sure there were no uniform malfunctions in the Lingerie Football League. It also includes their fellow fill-ins, the ones who take forever after every call and even then can't seem to get it right.
Real refs made their share of mistakes, too. A lot of people still think the Minnesota Vikings would have been in the Super Bowl had a flag been thrown on an obvious illegal hit against Brett Favre in the third quarter of the 2010 NFC championship game against the Saints. San Diego Chargers fans still talk about Ed Hochuli's premature whistle in 2008 that probably cost their team a win over the Denver Broncos and certainly cost one of the best officials in the league a bit of his reputation.
And who could forget the 1998 Thanksgiving Day game when the referee flipping the OT coin gave the ball to Detroit when it came up tails, even though Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis clearly called "tails" on the toss. The Lions took the ball and went down the field to kick a game-winning field goal.
So, of course the real refs weren't perfect, even with cameras replaying every angle. There's a reason FOX Sports filled an analyst's job with Mike Pereira, the former vice president of officiating for the NFL — because some calls are going to be controversial and some are going to be flat out wrong. The operative word is "some."
But there's barely a shred of confidence in the replacements, a motley crew at best, culled mostly from the lower ranks in college. They're trying to officiate games played at a speed they've never encountered before, with some rules they've never heard about until just before the exhibition season.
What they do could cost you some money, if you're like millions of Americans and like to have a little something riding on the game. Worse, they could cost your favorite team a game or two — something that almost happened during Week 1 when the Seahawks were given an extra timeout against Arizona.
"It's just rookies. And you've got a whole crew of rookies. What do you expect?" Washington linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said after a particularly shaky performance by the officials working the Redskins-Rams game in St. Louis on Sunday. "If you've got a whole bunch of rookies on an NFL roster, you're going to have a lot of mistakes, so it's the same thing. And that's what we get."
The NFL's contention that all is well with the replacements is as much a joke as almost allowing a Saints fan to be a replacement side judge at a game between his favorite team and Carolina — something that almost happened Sunday. The league removed him just before kickoff when pictures of him wearing Saints gear and tailgating at a preseason game were spotted on Facebook.
That the NFL would cheapen its product and damage its reputation to save a few thousand dollars is astonishing. It speaks to the arrogance of the league, which exercises a heavy hand in whatever it does, particularly when it comes to labor relations.
So far, the penalty stats don't make a case against the replacements, though their indecisiveness is probably the reason games so far this season are averaging six minutes longer than last year. According to STATS LLC, the rookies are calling penalties at about the same rate as the real refs, though the penalties they call are slightly different.
Through Sunday, there have been more holding calls this season than last (99-86) and more pass interference calls (44-31). But the rookies have been more reluctant to blow the whistle for unnecessary roughness (19 as opposed to 27 last season) and roughing the passer (12 this season, 16 last).
There's a growing consensus that the new refs are missing roughing calls and helmet-to-helmet hits, and allowing scuffles after the whistle is blown. That players hardly seem to respect them heightens the chance of someone getting hurt or a game getting out of control.
While players wouldn't risk their own careers by staging some kind of job action on behalf of regular refs, some are eager to do other things to get them back.
"I don't know what they're arguing about, but I got a couple of mill on it, so let's try to make it work," Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. "I'm sure the locker room could put up some cash and try to help the cause out."
The NFL doesn't need the cash. It got plenty back from the players after locking them out last year. Teams are making money and lots of it for their owners, many of whom are already millionaires many times over.
What it needs are competent referees.
And, please, don't take too long to think about it.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg