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Shutdown Corner

Jim Harbaugh gets over his officiating headache, may have had the NFL’s help

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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It's pretty clear that around the NFL, head coaches are apoplectic over the inconsistency (there's a tactful word) of the league's replacement officials. After Saturday's 20-9 loss to the Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh remarked that there were things about the replacement refs that only an Advil (or an end to the current NFLRA lockout) could cure.

"[I] don't have the pulse on this game," Harbaugh told the media. "What was it exactly? Was it us? Them? You know, some crazy, wild calls ... I have a headache, though. I've got a darn headache. A lot of them didn't seem like they were in the ballpark."

Given the NFL's pre-emptive edict telling everyone to avoid public criticism of the replacements, one would assume that coach Harbaugh got a phone call from Park Avenue. Not that he'd listen all that closely -- Harbaugh is a cranky contrarian at the best of times -- but he also understands that it's best to be on Roger Goodell's good side. Thus, he clarified his comments on Monday with a non-denial denial.

"What seems like a big deal Saturday night, here Monday is not a big deal," he said. "We're concentrating on Monday and what we can get out of this day. Making this practice and these meetings the best possible that we can have, and have had, in our training camp, with so much to do."

The league's insistence that NFL personnel refrain from saying what's glaringly obvious on the field simply compounds the problem, though. Harbaugh had every right to be hot about the officiating in the Texans game -- as has been through just about every preseason game, there have been inexcusable lapses from nearly every crew. Cam Inman of BayArea.com may have put it best:

A labor lockout of regular officials could extend into the regular season, and at least one 49ers player expressed dismay of that possibility, noting privately how the replacement officials are embarrassing themselves right now.

That player, speaking anonymously, explained how he was called for a phantom penalty this exhibition season, then told the official he wasn't at fault, only to have the official respond: "Maybe you weren't."

NFLPA head man DeMaurice Smith, who visited 49ers practice on Monday, wasn't so subtle. Asked about the sub-refs, Smith let it fly.

"I've made it abundantly clear in a meeting [with the NFL] not long ago how serious we feel the issue is," Smith said while observing practice. "It will become more significant as we progress in the season ... We shouldn't be at the point where we've made great strides in health and player safety, then step back by pulling the best people off the field."

Smith classified game officials as "first responders," which, given the NFL's increasing reliance on their ability to judge concussion symptoms and other injuries as the games go on, isn't too far off. Imagine if a hospital locked out its EMTs and hired a bunch of second-level volunteers instead?

"There are two teams on the field competing," Smith concluded. "[Officials] are the only people on the field with an eye toward health and safety while the game is progressing."

Sounds like the perfect recipe for a headache - no matter how much the NFL would like us to believe that all will be well. Speaking about the issue Monday on CNBC, Goodell gave the standard party line. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, however, said that he sees no difference between the replacements and the "real" refs.

"We have complaints, it doesn't matter who's officiating," McNair said. "And we look back at it as to those calls that we think were bad calls, and we don't have any more now than we had before. Now, clearly the officials that we have now are not as good professionally as the ones we've had, otherwise we would have had the others all along. But in terms of the impact on the game, I've been watching it and frankly I can't see any difference. We have the same situation — we have some calls we don't like, we have some that should have been made that weren't made, but we don't have any more, and the players are just as well protected. So I don't think that safety is an issue at all."

Well done, sir. We're pretty sure that Reliant Stadium just jumped up in the pool for the next open Super Bowl slot.

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