The labor battle between the NFL and its "real" officials goes unmerrily on, and at this point, it seems that the men (and woman) replacing them in the current lockout could be in games into the 2012 regular season. According to a Monday report by ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen, the league is prepared to take its replacement officials -- none of whom claim current professional or high-level collegiate officiating experience on their resumes -- into the games as they begin to really count.
According to Schefter and Mortensen, the stalled talks are about more than a slight pay raise and better pension plan for the NFL's actual officials. The NFL wants to make at least some of the officials full time, when all the current locked-out officials are part-timers, with career concerns outside of their football jobs. More than 90 percent of those officials have full-time jobs, and many of them are unwilling to quit their outside jobs and leave the revenue and security provided. The league also wants to add a few more crews to provide more off-time for the actual crews, many of whom work 15 weeks of the regular season, and the alleged best of those are elected to call the playoffs.
The NFL has also talked about rotating in some of the replacement officials into the crews, even if and after the current impasse is solved. And that's not good news for players and coaches around the league, many of whom have made public statements about the substandard performances those replacement officials have put across. This should be no surprise -- because Division I officials have agreed not to moonlight in the NFL, the natural progression of promotion to the NFL has been stunted, and the most obvious candidates to bump up to the pros has been stunted.
As a result, those officials who called Week 1 of the preseason, and will continue to do so, wouldn't be close to NFL candidacy under normal circumstances. Craig Ochoa, who couldn't even get the opening coin toss right in the Hall of Fame game between the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals, and kept replacing "Atlanta" with "Arizona" in his calls for the Atlanta Falcons-Baltimore Ravens preseason game, used to work in the Lingerie Football League, and may have been fired from that esteemed organization.
According to CBS Sports' Mike Freeman, another official was fired from his job as a teacher for sending correspondence that was racist in nature, and another was fired from the Pac-10 in a recent sweep of a series of officiating crews that were notable for their general incompetence. This after the NFL sent a memo to all teams, a copy of which Freeman acquired, that told all clubs to avoid any criticism of the replacement refs.
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That hasn't gone so well. New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz recently made it clear that if the NFL is so concerned about player safety and the officials' role in the monitoring process, a good start would be to have the most qualified people on the field.
"We want to make sure we're getting the best calls and getting the best referees we can get on each and every game," Cruz recently said. "I actually heard one of the refs only reffed glorified high school games -- and I don't even know what that means, essentially. I just want to make sure we're getting the best guys out there reffing these games. It's obviously tough for them because they have to get adjusted on the fly for NFL games."
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick went a bit more passive-aggressive on the subject, preferring to invoke the words of former NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira, now an analyst for FoxSports.com. Pereira has routinely blasted the replacement refs.
"I think Mike Pereira has made his comments on the officials," Belichick recently said. "I don't know who knows more about NFL officiating than Mike Pereira, so we'll leave it to him. I'm just trying to coach our team and get our team better. I'm not worried about what everybody else is doing. It's not my job."
I don't usually agree with Pereira about anything, and he's hitting softballs out of the park in this case, but he's exactly right when he says that the integrity of the game is in question.
The results show on the field. In Monday night's game between the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders, the officials didn't know where on the field to spot the ball, and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had to tell them. Officials have forgotten to review turnovers, as they are supposed to do per the rule book, and they've made several questionable calls -- calls even more questionable than the real guys would do.
Predictably, the NFL appears to be unconcerned. "Overall the officials did a good job for the first week of preseason, and they will get better," league spokesman Greg Aiello said. "There were some mistakes as there are every week of every season. We have been training the replacements for two months very intensively. They will continue to improve. We have an aggressively fair proposal on the table that is also designed to improve the quality of our officiating. We hope the NFLRA will recognize that and reach an agreement soon."
To be frank, that's a load of crap. The NFL has an aggressive proposal on the table that is designed to recalibrate the leverage enjoyed by the NFL over the officials, and if it means that the integrity of the game is compromised, that's just too bad, folks.
Even when the actual officials return, they'll take a while to ramp it up. According to Ross Tucker of SIRIUS NFL Radio, the NFL has not imparted any guidance to the locked-out officials -- nothing about rules changes, nothing about new points of emphasis. The NFL has even denied the locked-out officials access to its proprietary website for their benefit.
Of course, when you're of the opinion that you can take a bunch of off-brand clowns and turn them into actual professional officials in a couple of months, the "What, me worry?" meme probably rings true in the offices of Roger Goodell and those below him.
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