Now that the NFL-NFLRA labor impasse is over and the real officials are set to hit the field once again, two questions come up: What have the actual officials been doing to prepare themselves during the lockout, and how much rust can we expect to see? If there's one thing we learned in the first three weeks of the 2012 NFL season, it's that professional football is very tough to call and administrate under any circumstances.
"The long-term future of our game requires that we seek improvement in every area, including officiating," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement when the new eight-year deal was done. "This agreement supports long-term reforms that will make officiating better. The teams, players and fans want and deserve both consistency and quality in officiating.
"We look forward to having the finest officials in sports back on the field, and I want to give a special thanks to NFL fans for their passion. Now it's time to put the focus back on the teams and players where it belongs."
Well, sort of. The focus will also be on the real refs, starting with Thursday night's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. A crew of seven officials led by Gene Steratore -- a crew that hasn't called a game since at least last February -- will fly out to do that game less than 24 hours after the lockout was lifted.
If these officials are ready to do what they do, you can thank long-time referee Ed Hochuli. The most notable and recognized official, thanks to his bulging biceps and windy penalty explanations, has been engaging his colleagues in ad hoc seminars once a week for months. All officials got a Hochuli-implemented test once a week via conference call, and Hochuli went over the results with his comrades.
"That's one of the reasons why the officials will be up to date and ready to go,'' a source told SI.com's Peter King on Wednesday. "Ed grabbed the bull by the horns and made sure that whenever this thing ended, the regular officials would be ready to go back to work immediately.''
Hochuli, who told NFL.com's Jeff Darlington that he started doing push-ups when he heard the rumors of a new CBA, also told USA Today that the buzz among the regular officials has been extreme.
"All of us are very, very happy that this got resolved. We're all excited to be back. And we're ready. I feel very good about the preparation of our membership. We missed the preseason. But we're prepared and ready to roll. And hopefully, we can put this behind us.
"There are a lot of e-mails flying. We're like a bunch of old women."
Now that the secret's out, Hochuli has experienced a whole new level of respect and popularity with the football-loving populace.
"My kid told me I'm trending on Twitter," he told NFL.com. "What does that even mean?"
Jerry Markbreit, who started officiating high school games in 1957 and got to call games featuring the pre-college version of Dick Butkus, officiated in the NFL from 1976 through 1999, served as a replay official for two years after, and now serves as an associate supervisor and head trainer for actual NFL officials, believes that the re-adjustment process will be minimal at best.
"I'll tell you this -- the officials are ready," Markbreit told ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on Thursday morning. "They'll be ready Thursday night. They'll be ready to go out there because they've been doing exams and conference calls. They've had video training all the way back from May, and they are ready. They're going to pack their bags, and they're going to Baltimore tonight, and they'll be ready to go."
As to the matter of physical conditioning, Markbreit sounded pretty cheery on that, as well. "These guys are in great shape. They all had their physicals in March, and they've all been training themselves. They know the responsibilities. Once the game starts, they're out running right away, so they'll be ready. They haven't been sitting on their couches, watching television. They're ready to work, so that isn't a problem. The problem is that we're going to want everything to be perfect tonight, and nothing is perfect, of course. But you've got the regular refs back. They've been waiting in the wings for this to happen, and they've probably all got their bags packed."
Markbreit said that he's not concerned about the regular officials' ability to deal with the rules changes implemented in 2012, but that should be of some concern to fans, players and teams. When the NFL locked the refs out of the game, they also took away access to the league's proprietary website for their benefit, where videos detailing the rules changes could be found. So, there will be some ramping-up work in that case.
There were five rules changes adopted at the 2012 NFL meetings, including the adoption of the postseason overtime rule to the regular season (games can't end on a field goal on the first overtime possession). Also, the college rule for too many men on the field was implemented, which means that if a team lines up on offense for more than three seconds or the snap is imminent, the penalty takes effect. A loss of down was added for the penalty of kicking a loose ball, turnovers are to be automatically reviewed via instant replay (the replacement refs forgot this one frequently), and the defenseless receiver rule was expanded to cover defensive players on crackback blocks.
Greenberg and Golic also asked Markbreit whether he could see a scenario in which any of the replacement officials could work their way back into the league, despite the obvious emnity the actual officials would have for them.
"I don't think so. I'm not an expert at that, but I doubt it very much."
So, the replacement refs will go back to the MEAC, or the Frontier Conference, or try to find jobs if they've been fired from the Pac-12 or Lingerie League for incompetence. And the NFL will move forward and try to sidestep the impact of an embarrassment it could and should have avoided altogether.