The replacement refs die for pro football’s sins

The regular NFL referees are back at work, their labor dispute with the league having been resolved. Good. The replacement refs who worked the first three games of the season were poor.

However, the performance of the replacements didn’t just highlight their own shortcomings. They also highlighted imperfections in the pro game itself.

Consider the bitter complaints we heard so often during the past few weeks:

With all the confusion out there, the games are taking forever.

Yes, the replacement refs were confused at times, and their efforts to sort things out added a few minutes to many of the games. But NFL games already last too long – typically in the neighborhood of three hours and fifteen or twenty minutes, I believe.

Do an extra five or ten minutes really take us past the tipping point? Or did the replacement refs offer fans the chance to vent about a phenomenon about which, deep down, they are increasingly unhappy?

Look at all those cheap, vicious hits; someone’s going to get killed if the real refs don’t come back.

Yes, in the games I saw there probably were a few extra cheap shots, as players pushed the envelope to see what they could get away with while the regular refs were away. But please. Vicious hits and cheap shots are a regular feature of NFL games. “Bountygate” isn’t just a rumor; nor have bounties for knock-out blows been limited to the New Orleans Saints. And quite apart from bounties, unnecessary roughness is a staple of the game. That’s why it’s called so often by regular refs.

As for players getting “killed,” serious injuries are a way of life in the NFL, whose season can be viewed as a war of attrition. And remember, all of those concussions and other head injuries that have given rise to class action suits by former players took place on the watch of regular officials.

The replacement refs don’t even know the rules.

Does anyone really know all of the NFL’s rules? On the disputed game-winning touchdown/game-ending interception in the Seattle-Green Bay contest, ESPN called in its rules expert, a former ref, I believe, to say whether, under the rules, a dispute over possession of a pass is reviewable by replay. The expert declared that it wasn’t reviewable. Apparently, he was wrong – the play was reviewable (as the replacement refs thought) because it occurred in the end zone.

This is just one example of the web of rules that entangle NFL games. In another game, Washington vs. St. Louis, the question arose as to whether St. Louis should be penalized for challenging a call that was already subject to automatic review. The refs did not penalize St. Louis, but the announcers said they should have. There is something surreal when penalties arise not from actual football plays but from the procedural actions of coaches attempting to navigate the rules regarding replay review.

The NFL has strangled itself in complexity and rules. I’m as offended as any old-timer by the lack of class exhibited by players celebrating big plays (and often not very big plays). But should there really be a penalty for “excessive celebration”? Many of these guys are going to suffer major physical problems due to football after they retire. Let them enjoy themselves now.

Those bad calls were unacceptable.

Yes, and let’s be thankful that there will be fewer of them going forward. But football is basically impossible to referee well. How many times have you heard it said that holding can be called on almost every play? Yet holding is called on only a fairly small percentage of plays. This suggests that, just as to that one particular penalty, the refereeing is highly arbitrary and often incorrect.

Pass interference calls were perhaps the biggest cause of controversy during the referee lockout. But this is an extraordinarily difficult call for any referee to get consistently right. I’m told that on Thursday night, with the regular refs back and duly cheered onto the field by the fans in Baltimore, a bad pass interference call nearly enabled Cleveland to send the game into overtime. Don’t expect bad calls on potentially game-changing plays to disappear just because the replacement refs have been sent packing.

Football fans live with bad calls on the theory that they even out over the course of a season. There’s no good reason to think that they do, though. This is just a rationalization that helps fans retain their sanity. So is the view that all is well on the officiating front now that the regular refs are back.

Football isn’t the only sport that suffers from the problems that came to the fore during the referee lockout. Baseball games take far too long these days. And soccer matches can become crap shoots because difficult, subjective calls – penalty kick or no penalty kick; red card or just a yellow – have so much impact on the outcome.

But football is different because of its complexity and that fact that intense, often violent action occurs simultaneously at so many different spots on the field. This difference helps explain why football is a great sport. But it also helps explain why football is deeply flawed regardless of who officiates over it.

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