The NFL's officiating lockout is now entering its fourth regular-season week, and like most high-stakes disputes about money, the argument comes down to simple math.
On paper, the owners are winning, and that's a major leverage point. Though the outcry and indignation over the substandard performance of the replacement officials has intensified, the games are still being played, and fans are still buying tickets and jerseys and watching on television.
If you subscribe to the theory that the only bad publicity is an obituary – and that the bottom line is some sort of holy covenant – you undoubtedly believe the owners should tune out the noise and press their advantage until the locked-out officials cave and accept a contract to the NFL's liking.
This may, in fact, be the league's strategy, and it is well within the owners' rights to pursue it. Yet given that I believe in neither of the aforementioned theories as absolute principles, and because part of my role as a columnist who covers the NFL is to stick up for those helplessly relegated to the sideline as this staredown rages on (hint: YOU), I'm going to suggest an alternative approach.
First, let me offer some Bill Clinton-style arithmetic: Four timeouts, two extra challenges.
That's what 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh received in the final minutes of San Francisco's 24-13 defeat to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, a gift from the football gods made possible by a) Harbaugh's forcefully persuasive personality; and b) the replacement referee's utter ignorance of the rules, something the official in question later admitted.
Talk about fuzzy math: Despite having just called his third and final timeout, Harbaugh was allowed to challenge a play on which his former Stanford running back, Toby Gerhart, was ruled down by contact. The official erroneously allowed the play to be reviewed, and after it was ruled that Gerhart had fumbled and the 49ers had recovered, gave Harbaugh his timeout back.
That timeout came in handy a bit later when the Vikes, having regained possession, handed the ball to Gerhart again, and he fumbled again, and Harbaugh challenged the ruling that the Vikes had recovered. This time, alas, he was unsuccessful. I'm sure the coach's next move would have been to ask for more time on the clock, or for more points. In fairness, why wouldn't he?
Fortunately, that regrettable bit of cluelessness didn't unjustly cost the Vikings a victory. The league has been lucky that, during the first three weeks of the season, there has not been an Ed Hochuli-in-Denver-style butchered call that altered the outcome of a game.
Yet this is not to say that there haven't been numerous instances of bang-your-fist-against-your-head officiating that have tormented fans across the country, not to mention gamblers and fantasy-football players. Sunday was a bad day for those insisting that life under the replacement refs represents business as usual, and we know which way the perception is trending.
By the time the final stages of Sunday night's exciting game between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots played out in front of a massive NBC audience, the officiating crisis had officially become a thing.
From the cacophonous "B.S." chant that filled M&T Bank Stadium after a dubious call against the Ravens late in the flag-filled game to the admission of announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth that their multi-million-dollar broadcast partner was allowing substandard officials to work its games to the unsettling sight of Patriots coach Bill Belichick going zebra hunting at game's end (following an in-game personal foul on Ravens counterpart John Harbaugh for touching an official on the sideline), this was a telecast that screamed "public relations nightmare."
Because the ratings were awesome, as always, the owners may not care. Privately, however, I believe they do. Yes, they like to win, and if they hold out longer they can probably bleed the regular officials into taking a lesser deal. Who knows, perhaps they can even give them the same treatment that President Ronald Reagan did the air-traffic controllers in 1981 and make them go away permanently.
Business, however, isn't merely about milking every possible dollar out of the cow in the short term. The owners, I suspect, understand that substandard officiating gives the jewel of American professional sports a trashy stench that might not wash away so easily. There's also the legal backdrop: With so many head-trauma lawsuits aimed in the league's direction, the perception that the owners continued to jeopardize player safety by keeping the most qualified officials off the field for an extended period might make the NFL more culpable in the courtroom.
At this point, the smart move on both sides is to settle, and reason should dictate the day. We're not talking about that much money in the overall scheme of things, especially given that your favorite franchise likely appreciated another $500,000 or so while you were reading this sentence.
Yes, I'm exaggerating – but then again, it wasn't that long of a sentence.
I know the disclaimers: We shouldn't blame the replacement officials for not being as good as the regular refs. Fine, it's not their fault they suck. But they are the ones who signed up to do the jobs of locked-out employees, and those of us sympathetic to workers tend not to have a ton of respect for people who cross those lines. In my opinion, the replacements made their decision, and they should own it, just as they should own the fact that they're not qualified to perform on the big stage.
Disclaimer No. 2 is that the regular refs made bad calls, too. Sure they did: Just not nearly as many, and with a much greater sense of authority, even in the instances when they were wrong. And I'm pretty sure most coaches didn't waste a lot of breath trying to talk them into extra timeouts and replay challenges.
The final disclaimer is that the players and coaches should just deal with it and stop complaining about the bad officiating and trying to bully the replacements into calling things their way.
My response: Riiiiiiiggggggghhhhhttttt.
Professional football is played and coached by some of the most competitive men on the planet, people who've fought through long odds and pushed through an incredibly thin funnel to perform on that lofty level. They are constantly evaluated by their peers, their employers, media analysts and fans, and a blown call or a screwed-up rules interpretation could literally be career-changing.
People lose their jobs, move out of their cities and take lasting blows to their legacies because of the outcomes of these games. So, yeah, they're going to be a bit worked up about the way the rules are administered when they feel as though the replacements aren't good enough to cut it on the big stage.
It's also true that intimidation is a vital part of pro football, and you're damn right the replacement refs are going to be subjected to emphatic efforts to sway them. As bad as the botched calls or uncertain application of the rules is the blatant hesitation that some of these replacement officials display, which only intensifies the lobbying on the players' and coaches' part.
At Sunday's Cardinals-Eagles game, Arizona linebacker Sam Acho chased Philly quarterback Michael Vick on a third-and-9 play in the fourth quarter and forced a throwaway. No flag was thrown, and Acho started gesturing ardently to the nearest official. A few seconds later, the official threw a flag for intentional grounding, then issued a penalty for 20 yards (huh?) and a loss of down.
Did Acho talk him into the penalty? It sure seemed that way. At the very least, moments like that are a very, very bad look for the league.
This is not to excuse Belichick for making contact with a ref, or Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for reportedly chasing down an official and berating him in especially harsh terms. The league has rules, and it's up to the players and coaches to abide by them.
However, if commissioner Roger Goodell truly cares about The Shield – and I'm convinced he does, which is one reason I like him – he'll try to persuade the owners to compromise in the name of crisis management. Hopefully, the locked-out officials will be similarly reasonable, and the two sides can meet in the middle, and we can turn our attention to what's really important, like Tim Tebow's shirtless physique and whether Cam Newton mopes too much on the sidelines.
Sometimes, it takes an abstract equation to solve a complicated math formula. In this case, I think the owners should sweeten their proposal, ignore the bottom line and take a lesson from Professor Andre Agassi.
In this case, image is everything.
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