Horrible NFL Replacement Officials May Be Good for the League Long Term

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterSeptember 18, 2012

You know the Halloween costume that's always a hit at parties where one person is the front of a horse and another is the back? The NFL should order a few dozen of those suits to paint black and white so fans could get the childish jubilation of watching a bunch of zebras muddle through NFL games with their heads stuck up each other's asses.

It would have to be better than whatever the replacement officials have given us the first two weeks of the season. 

The NFL can't stand by and let the integrity of the game become compromised because of a ridiculous squabble with the real referees. This has to get fixed soon.

Still, as bad as the calls are in the short term, this experiment is probably good for the NFL long term.

It's easier to see what the NFL can fix when the "official" officials return in light of what the replacements are getting so wrong. Rather than harp on every single thing the replacement refs are doing wrong—does anyone have that much time—let's focus instead on four main issues the NFL can fix when the real referees come back.

Understanding of the Rules

The replacement officials have displayed a near-universal inability to understand basic NFL rules during the first two weeks. 

Somehow the replacement officials were worse in Week 2 than they were in the season openers. In the Monday Night Football game between Atlanta and Denver, a Broncos player was flagged for holding on the line of scrimmage when the player he held still managed to make the tackle for no gain. That was one of the better calls of the weekend, if you can believe it.

Remember the old NFL cliché that there's a hold on every snap? The replacement officials seem to be taking that literally.

Another example: If a ball is in the air, the defensive player cannot be called for holding. It must be pass interference, which is a spot foul and not a five-yard penalty.

In just a handful of games over the first two weeks, I counted the pass interference rule misinterpreted five times. The offensive team has little reason to complain after being given an automatic first down, so those calls have received far less attention than other mistakes.

In truth, it seems the replacement referees are using the defensive holding penalty as a half measure, giving the offense a first down without completely penalizing the defense in case the call was wrong.

The only problem is … that's not the rule. Yet while that rule doesn't exist, it should. There should be a rule exactly like what some replacement referees have called, something short of interference; like the difference between running into the kicker and roughing the kicker.

The replacement referees may have stumbled upon something there. Of course, that doesn't account for the times a flag is thrown for pass interference when a defender hasn't even touched the receiver at all. That happened in several games this weekend, each mistake more costly than the next.

Pass interference is just one of the many rules the replacement officials don't seem to understand, which speaks in part to a lack of preparation and maybe, just maybe, the fact the NFL has too many super-confusing rules.

Easy Fix: The NFL needs to re-address the idea of a first- and second-degree pass interference penalty. Maybe defensive holding while the ball is in the air can be a viable option.

Penalty Administration

Penalty administration is fast becoming my new favorite term in sports. The NFL won't pay the regular officials to come back to work but it will employ an extra official on the sidelines whose only job is to talk to a rules interpreter in the booth who calls down when the replacement referee messes something up. In this case, three for the price of one isn't a great deal for anybody.

The Denver Broncos were given an extra six yards after a pass interference penalty was called late in the first half on Monday night because nobody in the officiating crew could figure out the proper distance for a pass-interference call within five yards of the line of scrimmage. The Broncos scored a touchdown on that drive, clearly aided by the bonus yards they received.

The New York Jets challenged a fumble late in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, and while video evidence showed the ball was likely knocked loose before the player was down by contact, the replacement official decided not to overturn the call.

Per the CBS announcers, the official was allowed to review the entire play, not just the fumble in question. Had he done that, there was clear visual evidence the runner's knee was down well several yards before and in advance of any potential fumble. 

The ball was spotted where the fumble was challenged, not where the runner was originally down. That play didn't impact the outcome of the game, but the replay officials' lack of understanding of the rules gave Pittsburgh more favorable field position at a key moment for the Jets. 

The worst administration of all may have come late in the Philadelphia win over Baltimore when an official inexplicably ruled that Michael Vick had fumbled on a forward pass down near the goal line. The call was easily overturned upon further review, giving the Eagles the ball back at the one-yard line. Michael Vick scrambled in for the game-winning touchdown a play later. 

While the fumble call was hilariously bad, it masked the fact that Vick was either in the grasp when he threw the ball or should have been flagged for intentional grounding as he heaved a ball to nowhere while still in the pocket, just to avoid a sack.

The Eagles should not have lost possession of the ball, but that ridiculous decision on the field completely overshadowed the fact that Philadelphia probably should have lined up at the five-yard line, not one-yard line on the next play. 

Those potential penalties are "judgment" calls in NFL parlance, not clear-cut violations the normal referees would have flagged. Yes, the replacement refs made things worse, but the regular refs could use help from above, too.

Easy Fix: Let the eye in the sky break all ties. (That even rhymes.) When the regular referees come back, that doesn't automatically mean these issues will disappear. Allowing the league to control this from upstairs will maintain accountability—and continuity—for all games, no matter the crew. 

Time of Games

Not only do the replacement referees seem to be calling more penalties, but the conversations between a flag being tossed and a call being made are taking forever. The deliberation process—all in an effort to get the calls right, I'm sure—have bogged the games down to a halt. 

In Week 2 of the NFL this year, the average length of game was 3:11, up eight minutes from opening weekend. There was just one game in the second week of the season that was completed in under three hours, with 10 of the 16 contests lasting longer than 3:10 minutes. 

The Eagles have played two games this season in times of 3:35 and 3:38. Neither game had more than 47 points combined.

The time it takes to administer penalties isn't the only problem, as the way in which some penalties are administered seems to create confusion too. This isn't all on the replacement refs, but they've highlighted the problem.

Easy Fix: What happened to the challenge clock anyway? I haven't seen that countdown used at all this year. Regardless, if all challenges are handled off the field by a replay official, not one of the game officials, the NFL would cut down on review time by minutes each game. That, and if an official throws a flag he has no more than 10 seconds to confer with his fellow officials to get the call right. Let's move the games along. 

Players and Coaches

When the idea of replacement referees first became a reality for regular-season games, I admit I was fine with it. The fight between the regular referees and the NFL is another big business squabble that has nothing to do with the game on the field.

I was not one who bought into the rhetoric that replacement officials would create an environment where players have a greater chance of getting injured. Even with an increase in skirmishes on the field the first two weeks, it doesn't seem like a rash of injuries are being caused by negligent officiating.

The bigger issue through two weeks is that players and coaches are trying to dupe or frighten the replacement referees into calling penalties in their favor. Coaches traditionally work referees throughout the game and players are constantly complaining about calls too, but watching games this year gives the sense the teams are trying to confuse the officials into throwing flags that more seasoned referees would not. 

Even Robert Griffin III, himself a rookie who only knows NFL replacement referees in his career, was caught on the Fox broadcast this weekend trying to get an official to throw a flag for a defender leading with his helmet more than 15 yards downfield.

Was he unaware that once he crosses the line he is just like any other player, or was he trying to trick an inexperienced official to tack on an extra 15 yards? Watching it unfold, it sure felt like the latter.

If a player happens to get touched illegally by his opponent, some are flopping around like they're trying out for the Italian national soccer team, then wheeling around and berating the overmatched referees for not throwing a flag.

Coaches are always barking on the sidelines, but you get the sense after 32 games that this year has been different—angrier and less respectful in a way. If this keeps up, it could lead to more dangerous situations.

The replacement referees are so overwhelmed calling the penalties they actually see, it stands to reason the players and coaches will be able to impact future calls. With flags flying in so incredibly late, are we sure the coaches and players aren't impacting those actual plays?

This is another problem that should abate when the real refs return, but it won't go away.

Easy Fix: Like in soccer, give penalties for complaining, dissent and faking. If a player takes a dive, throw him an unsportsmanlike flag. In the meantime, hire officials back that coaches and players actually respect.


So What's Next…

At this pace, the game will be better served by Week 6 if players call their own fouls. Or, better yet, just pull fans out of the stands. Oh, right, that's what the NFL was already doing when they hired some replacement officials.

During the Monday Night Football game this week there were as many tweets about the referees as there seemed to be about Matt Ryan or Peyton Manning. Some suggested the poor performance of the replacement officials gives the regular referees all the leverage in the world. Others suggested the NFL will never cave as long as fans continue to watch games no matter who is throwing the flags. 

It shouldn't matter who has more leverage or what the motivation is for one side or the other to cave. The NFL makes so much money every year we should all get six figure salaries just for watching and covering the games. That said, the league isn't in business to just throw money away, and some of the concessions the league has publicly offered the referees make good sense for both sides.

Sure the referees think they should be valued higher than the league does. Yes, the replacement referees are showing just how valuable the real officials are to the game, but no matter who is right, the longer this fight continues the more wrong both sides prove to be. 

The regular officials will come back. It could be today or next year or somewhere in between, but they will come back. Let's hope the NFL, referees and the NFLPA work together so when the regular officials do come back, egos are put aside and the right calls start getting made. 

The NFL needs to give the referees as clear an advantage calling a game as we have at home. Instead of making the head referee stand under a ridiculous hood to make a replay call, the NFL should employ the same method the college game uses and have a replay official in a booth correcting the mistakes from the field. That, or like the NHL does, the NFL should review all challenged calls from a control room in New York City. 

The NFL also needs to fix the challenge situation. If an official makes a horrible call—like the Vick fumble—the teams should not have to waste a potential timeout to challenge those calls. The league takes control of replay in the last two minutes of each half, so why not the rest of the game? Is a play at the 2:10 mark any less important than one that comes after the two-minute warning?

Even judgment calls should be up for review if further visual evidence proves the wrong call was made on the field. 

Lastly, the referees should be graded each week with the understanding that, yes, they can be replaced. They may be replaced by terrible NAIA officials or high school teachers who won (or lost) a contest somewhere along the way, but if the last two weeks have given us any indication, the real officials should realize that every bad call impacts the outcomes of games. 

It doesn't matter who replaces some of the guys you have now, NFL. We all hope it's the regular officials, but it could be a few fans in painted horse costumes for all I care. Just please realize, nobody can take much more of what we have now.


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