If the NFL and the NFL Referees Association can't come to terms on a new agreement -- and it certainly seems that they won't for a good while -- how will that affect the games? We assume the league will bring replacement refs more professional than the guy who asked Jerry Rice for his autograph before a game in 2001 (true story, via Sam Farmer of the L.A. Times), the last time there was an impasse between the league and its officials. NFL Director of Recruiting Officials Ron Baynes recently sent a memo to scouts to help in finding officials who "look the part," but the parameters seem a bit weird.
Among those qualities required are that the officials have "recently retired from a successful career in college officiating and [are] still physically able to officiate at a high level of competency, [or] lower division college officials, professional league officials and semi-professional league officials whose window of opportunity for advancement has pretty much closed but who have the ability to work higher levels but just got overlooked."
In addition, prospective officials must subject themselves to a "rigorous training program," pass a background check and come with a doctor's note (no, really) stating that they're up the rigors of professional officiating.
So ... in other words, the NFL could wind up with a bunch of Arena League and UFL castoffs, and/or the guys who were so bad in the Pac-12 a couple years ago, they couldn't even pass muster with noted officiating apologist, former conference "interim coordinator of officiating," and current "consultant" Mike Pereira. A scary thought, to be sure.
And since officials were recently tasked with the additional responsibility of making sure that concussed players get the hack off the field and stay there (since the NFL doesn't seem to want to put independent neurologists on every field of play), how is locking the real refs out an example of the player safety mandates Roger Goodell won't shut up about? In addition, every head official and crew comes with their own tendencies and scouting reports -- there are weeks when you know you'll be able to get away with more, and weeks in which you'd better watch your P's and Q's, because Mr. Ticky-tack has the whistle.
For the players, there are varying degrees of concern.
"To tell you the truth, until [Tuesday] I didn't even know that was going on," Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford told the Detroit Free Press. "I had no idea about it. We're going to play games, that's all I know. Whoever is out there reffing is going to be out there reffing. Obviously, the guys that we know and have been with in the past, it would be nice to have them out there. But if not we'll have to adjust and keep moving."
Of course, the Lions might want different people in place -- they were the fourth-most penalized team last year, and their reputation for on-field buffoonery certainly precedes them at times.
Former Houston Texans offensive tackle Eric Winston, who now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs (the NFL's fifth-most penalized team in 2011), was a bit more aggrieved about the prospect of replacement refs.
"I think players will start to care once the season gets closer," Winston told NFL.com's Jeff Darlington on Wednesday. "What they can do about it, I don't know. But I'd be shocked if it doesn't get resolved by Week 1. I think that's probably why it's not on a lot of teams' radar."
Winston also talked about the familiarity issue; i.e., the fact that teams scout officials as much as they scout their opponents. "Some of the refs, you have pretty good banter with. Some, you don't know at all. It goes from ref to ref. Some refs are very personable. You know them, especially if they've been around a long time. You know their name; you know what they like to call. And I think it makes the games better that way. If you add new refs, they don't know you, you don't know them. You don't know what the deal is, and it starts to change things up pretty dramatically. It's not a black-and-white issue."
Darlington also talked with Cleveland Browns (the 19th-most penalized team in 2011) linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who spoke to that issue more specifically. "Refs get scouting reports just like we get scouting reports. They know who is aggressive, who is not," Jackson said. "They know how to call the game. That changes a major dynamic of the game -- what you can and can't get away with."
And what of the player safety issue? If the NFL is as concerned with it as it always says, why the eagerness to replace the supposed stewards of the game? "If we're protecting the players, having a professional referee is important," Jackson said. "We're professional athletes. We want professional referees. We don't want replacements. With the player safety issues -- and all of these big hits -- officials are very important. I look at it as we get paid a ton of money; we spend a ton of time developing schemes and studying film. Once we get on the field, we need that same effort. We need to know that guy calling the game is just as good."
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, long-known as one of the NFL's hardest hitters, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he doesn't see replacement refs affecting game safety ... because in his mind, they won't be out there when the games really matter.
"Nobody wants to be out of work," Clark said. "You try to get the best deal possible, but at the end, negotiations will come through and referees will be out there."