The NFL preseason goes merrily on, and while the on-field play has been as up-and-down as you'd expect from the exhibition season, the officiating from a series of replacement refs continues to trend downward. In the Tennessee Titans' 32-27 Thursday night win over the Arizona Cardinals, the refs in place weren't quite sure how many timeouts the Cards had remaining, and there were back-to-back holding penalties called on Titans field-goal attempts as a result of "communication errors" between the officials and coaching staffs. In addition, the refs misidentified at least three Titans players when calling penalties.
According to Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean, Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray was seen arguing with one of the refs at the end of the game, and Gray made a "Three Stooges" reference. Head coach Mike Munchak, perhaps aware that his comments are being more closely monitored by the league than the officiating he's talking about, was a bit more diplomatic.
"There were a few things,'' Munchak said. "I think they just got a little sloppy at the end. It seemed like nothing was called most of the game and then all of a sudden there's a lot of calls. At the end of the game there was a little confusion on was the last ball complete or incomplete. It's things like that that were frustrating, but we want them in, so hopefully that's something they will continue to clean up."
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis had his own issues after his team lost a 27-13 Thursday game to the Green Bay Packers -- the crew calling the game didn't understand the defenseless receiver rule, which has been a fairly significant point of emphasis in the last couple of years. When Bengals safety Taylor Mays hit Packers tight end Tom Crabtree with what looked to all the world like a clean shoulder-to-shoulder hit (though Crabtree was injured on the play), the refs threw the flag.
"It was exactly shoulder-to-shoulder," Lewis said. "Unfortunately, the guy that made the call's explanation was not correct. It's one of those things. [The replacement officials] are getting better. Hopefully, it will get closer and closer to what we need. His understanding was that the player was a defenseless receiver. He was, but you are allowed to hit a defenseless receiver shoulder-to-shoulder. There is no such thing as a defenseless player unless he is hit in the head with your head. It was a misinterpretation of the rule. I know they are working hard. The league is working hard to get this stuff corrected. They are working overtime on it actually. It'll get better and better."
Mays seemed equally confused. "I think the main thing is he was high when he caught the ball and I was high when I hit him," Mays said. "The emphasis we've been talking about is me striking from a lower position. The lower I get the less room for argument. I don't know. Replay it."
Well, they didn't replay it, not that it would have made much difference. The officials replacing the NFL's longtime refs -- who are currently locked out in a labor dispute -- have shown a worrisome lack of knowledge when it comes to the simplest things -- what the rules are, where to spot the ball, how to control the game. Shutdown Corner has spoken to two individuals who have officiated at the high school level, neither of whom has a particular side to take in this issue, and both were amazed at the sloppiness of the officiating overall. The counter argument, of course, is that these refs are not ready for prime time. And that's exactly why they shouldn't be there -- especially in a league which allegedly prides itself on a focus on player safety at all times.
As you'd expect, the league sees no issue with the current zebras ... or at least that's what it's saying. Ray Anderson, the NFL's vice president of football operations, told the Baltimore Sun that there's no need to worry.
"We expected going in, just like the players going through the preseason, that every week they would get better," Anderson said during the Baltimore Ravens' eventual 48-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. "The first week, we had some rough spots and we got better from the first week to the second week and we expect to get better this week, too, and on and on. This is the third week and it seems to me they've had a pretty solid first half. Uneventful, that's exactly what you want. That's the improvement we expect ... these current officials are the ones out there and we'll work with them."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said the same thing all along. Despite what you see on the field, everything's just fine.
"These officials have been trained," Goodell recently said. "We've been working with them. We think they'll do a very credible job."
Many of these officials come from the high school or college sub-division level, one was fired from the Pac-10 back when it was the Pac-10 in a sweep-through of underqualified refs, another was fired from his teaching job for sending hate crime-level mail, and another may have been fired from the Lingerie Football League. They were trained in the speed and complexity of the NFL game for a grand total of two months before they were let loose on an unsuspecting league. That math doesn't seem to make sense ... but it would appear that a couple of NFL owners are on Goodell's side here.
"We have complaints, it doesn't matter who's officiating," Houston Texans owner Bob McNair recently 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."
And then there was Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who once ripped "real" ref Ed Hochuli in a public tantrum. Jones was more forgiving of the replacement officials and isn't worried about them.
"No, I'm not, at all," Jones said on KRLD-FM. "As long as it's the same for both sides, and it will be, we'll be all right. They're going to get better as they go along."
In other news, McNair and Jones would like their stadiums to be Super Bowl sites in the near future. And, they want to stay on Goodell's good side. We'll see how forgiving they are if this labor impasse goes into the regular season, and they find themselves on the losing end because a bunch of beer-league refs had no clue what they were doing.