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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The NFL Doesn't Care that Replacement Officials are Terrible (9.18.12)

A mountain of evidence is piling in regard to the incompetency of NFL replacement officials, but don't expect the NFL and the NFL Referees Association to come up with an agreement any time soon.

After Week 1, the consensus seemed to state, "Hey, the replacements aren't so bad, they didn't screw up anything major."

Maybe the replacement officials didn't truly alter an outcome of a game in Week 1, but can you imagine a regular official crew awarding a team four timeouts in a single half?

That's what happened in the matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals. Trailing by four points on the final drive of the game, Seattle was able to call their fourth timeout of the second half — three is the maximum per half. With 30 seconds remaining in the game, the officials deliberated for a couple of minutes before incorrectly deciding that Seattle could in fact call their fourth timeout of the half.

Simply put, the referees did not understand that Seattle burned their third and final timeout two plays prior when Doug Baldwin, a receiver, went down with an injury. When a player is injured and cannot continue play with under two minutes remaining, a timeout must be taken or a delay of game penalty will occur — this rule is to prevent players from faking injuries in order to receive free timeouts late in games.

Failing to understand such a simple rule nearly swung the outcome of the game. Despite receiving the extra timeout, the Seahawks failed to capitalize as the Cardinals hung in tough and executed an outstanding goal line stand to win the game.

But imagine if the Cardinals had lost. Imagine if the time saved with the extra timeout had ended up allowing the Seahawks just enough time to win the game. Hell, it almost did. Three different Seahawks got their hands on the ball in the end zone, and all three dropped the ball. Disaster may have been averted, but the situation should have never even occurred.

Despite the timeout hiccup, and a couple other mistakes (the block in the back flag that was then picked up during the Green Bay/San Francisco game), Week 1 seemed to feature decent officiating from the replacement officials.

However, in Week 2, blatant mistakes popped up across the entire league.

Mike Pereira, a former Vice President of Officiating for the NFL, provides great analysis for Fox Sports due to his understanding of the NFL rulebook. In one segment, Pereira broke down some failed calls by the replacement officials, and in one of his articles, Pereira opens with this strong statement, "I'm officially over it."

Pereira isn't the only one "over it." Despite risking fines, players have also began to give their opinions of the shoddy officiating.

Joe Flacco and Ray Lewis both criticized the officials following the Baltimore Ravens loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Flacco called one offensive pass interference call "crazy," and Lewis stated, "How much longer are we going to keep going through this whole process? [...] I just know across the league teams and the league are being affected by it."

On the other side, following some confusion from the referees that led to the two-minute warning occurring twice, Michael Vick had to sit and wait as an obvious forward pass was ruled a fumble. Following the replay, the call was overturned, but that didn't stop Vick from commenting, "It's extra stress when you have to sit there and wait. The one thing you don't want to do, you don't want to put the game in the officials' hands."

The worst call of Week 2 may have been a phantom pass interference call against cornerback Ike Taylor of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Taylor played some elite defense as he shadowed every move made by receiver Santonio Holmes of the New York Jets. Despite failing to even touch Holmes, Taylor was penalized. What's alarming about the penalty is the fact that Holmes was blown up on the play by the safety, Ryan Clark. Clark made an absolutely legal play on the ball, but it almost seemed like the referees felt that something needed to be called once they threw their flags on the ground, so they called pass interference. It was as if they didn't want to be embarrassed by having to pick the flag up, so they went with pass interference after they realized that the hit was clean.

Even further, player safety also came into question due to mistakes by the replacement officials. On one such instance, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, Alex Smith, scrambled out of the pocket and gave himself up with a feet-first slide after he reached the first down marker. As Smith went to the ground, the safety for the Detroit Lions, John Wendling, laid a forearm blow to Smith's head. The hit ended up causing Smith to suffer a cut across the upper bridge of his nose that led to a stream of blood. Everyone knows that quarterbacks are pretty much untouchable, yet this obvious personal foul went uncalled. When a quarterback slides feet-first, he is no longer considered a ball carrier, and he is not supposed to be hit, yet Wendling was able to sneak in a nice shot to Smith's head. If you think a sliding quarterback isn't vulnerable, watch this clip of Trent Green from a few years back.

Then there was Golden Tate's huge block on Sean Lee. Tate, a receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, noticed his quarterback scrambling, so he peeled off his route and laid a blindside hit on the pursuing linebacker of the Dallas Cowboys. Tate decleated Lee with the tremendous hit, and Lee sat out the rest of the game. No penalty was called on the block, and even more upsetting for Dallas fans was the fact that quarterback Russell Wilson benefited on an extremely weak personal foul call as he was touched about an inch out of bounds on that very same play. While I am not sure if the block was legal or not, I do know that I would have been more comfortable with actual referees assessing the situation. The block was clearly a blindside hit, and I'm pretty sure that blindside hits are currently deemed illegal. Some claim that the hit was also helmet to helmet, but I don't see it. Either way, Lee could have suffered brain trauma on such a play. Let's just say that replacement officials may not be the most qualified to handle such a situation.

Overall, the officiating on Sunday for Week 2 was full of mistakes, misinterpretations, and inconsistencies, but that wouldn't be the worst of it.

On Monday Night Football, the replacement officials stood front and center in front of a national audience in the prime time slot.

The first quarter of the Denver Broncos versus Atlanta Falcons took an hour in itself. One tempo draining moment in the first quarter took over six minutes for the referees to decide. On the second to last play of the quarter, Knowshon Moreno, running back for the Broncos, fumbled the ball. Following the fumble, the referees lost control of the game. Possession was awarded to the Falcons despite the fact that a Broncos player emerged from the pile with the ball in his hands — maybe he ripped it out late, but usually possession is awarded to the team that emerges from the pile with the ball. Then, players from both teams came onto the field and began to engage in scuffles, with one referee almost getting clocked with a thrown punch intended for a player. In a hilarious moment, the head official came out and stated, "Personal foul, number 93, red." Is this a high school game or what? Red? I guess Atlanta was too difficult to say. Six minutes after the fumble, the game resumed — there was no official replay, so the delay is hard to explain (it took over three minutes to resume play after the head official called the personal foul on "red").

At one point early in the second quarter, play-by-play man Mike Tirico stated, "Honestly. It's embarrassing. The command and control of this game is gone." Jon Gruden chirped in later in the second quarter with this statement, "I think these pass interference calls need to jump off the screen at you. Let's see Carter, number 32, working against Julio Jones. I don't see that anywhere. I just don't understand how they can call pass interference on Carter."

With over 16 penalties called in the first half, time dragged on as it took over two hours for the first half to conclude. The officials considerably lightened up in the second half, as just five penalties were called, and the half finished within 90 minutes.

Despite the increased pace in the second half, the referees would once again muck up the game early in the third quarter. After a defensive holding call on Denver's cornerback, Champ Bailey, the referees failed to tack on five yards following a scramble from quarterback Matt Ryan. Pushing Denver into the ropes with a no-huddle attack, Ryan lined up his offense to take the snap for the next play. As the ball was about to be snapped, the referees ran in and stopped play. Three minutes after the initial holding penalty, play resumed. During the delay, Gruden stated, "Matt Ryan, he's not happy with this slow down by the officials [...] this administration is more than just where the ball is just spotted, it's ruining the momentum of the game and it's affecting the outcome, I believe. It might not look like it right now, but this is really to Denver's advantage, so they can get their breath." Despite the delay, Ryan and the Falcons punched in a touchdown with a throw to Roddy White two plays later.

After numerous delays, deliberations, phantom calls, misinterpretations, incorrect calls, and a general lack of authority, Monday Night Football clearly exhibited the ineptitude of the replacement officials on a grand stage — at one point they gave Denver five free yards with an incorrect spot of the ball. No one is blaming them for their effort, and it's not their fault that the NFL is unwilling to negotiate with the NFL Referees Association. But, clearly, these replacement officials are not getting the job done at an acceptable level. The integrity of the NFL is truly questionable right now. These replacement officials are Division II and III guys, they aren't even the top dogs from college football. How can the NFL allow such unqualified officials to call these games?

In fact, one replacement official had pictures of himself in Saints gear on his Facebook, yet he was scheduled to work Week 2's Saints vs Panthers game. It wasn't until ESPN reporter, Chris Mortensen, reported the official to the NFL that the official was pulled from the game. I guess background checks aren't standard procedure when it comes to NFL officiating.

To come full circle, let me explain my opening statement — scroll up and look at it again. Actually, I'll let a Hall of Fame quarterback, Steve Young, explain it. 

Following the Monday Night Football debacle, Young blasted the NFL with this statement, "Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There is nothing that they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is, they don't care. Player safety doesn't matter in this case. Bring in Division III officials, it doesn't matter. Because in the end, you're still gonna watch the game, we're gonna all complain and moan and gripe [...] doesn't matter." Young continued, "If it affected the desire of the game, they'd come up with a few million dollars."

Young is one of the brightest individuals in football, and his analysis is spot on. Supply and demand dictates this topic, and as long as people continue to tune in, the NFL will still make billions. Is anyone turning the game off due to the shoddy officiating? The cold truth is no. We're all watching. We're all talking about it. In fact, the officiating may be generating even more revenue due to increased interest.

In a subtle jab at the officials Young started his criticism with this statement, "I can say this because the league officials have gone to sleep." After poking at the longevity of the game, Young then swung for the knockout, and I'm glad he did. It's great to hear someone of Young's stature in the NFL call out the league for hypocrisy.

Remember how much Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, supposedly cared about player safety throughout these past couple years?

Remember all the rule changes regarding hits to the head, concussions, kick returns, etc?

Well those things don't matter anymore because the most qualified personnel to enforce those new safety measures aren't employed by Goodell anymore. It all comes down to money. Goodell didn't care about concussions until he realized that lawsuits were coming due to CTE (pushed to the forefront by player suicides). Prior to 2007, the NFL officially claimed that there were no links between concussions and cognitive decline. Now he's showing his true colors by employing scabs. Yes, scabs. NFL referees probably don't deserve pensions for working part-time, but hey, supply and demand. They are the best at what they do, and they are scarce, thus making them valuable. Goodell views the officials as commodities rather than necessities, and it comes at the expense of his players, his league, and the fans of his sport.

We're all dupes, but hey, I like football and so do you. The only way the officials will be back anytime soon is if massive viewership dips, causing a decline in revenue from licensing and ads, or if the officials cave in. The former is nearly impossible, and the latter is a stubborn process that is going to take time.

So get used to it, the replacement officials are terrible and there's nothing that can be done about it. Unless an all out brawl takes place on the field, these officials are here to stay.

Maybe someone needs to sign Ron Artest in order to end this mess.

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