Fill-in Refs Raising Concerns as NFL Season Looms

Jim Harbaugh
This Aug. 26, 2012 file photo shows San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, right, arguing with a replacement official during the second quarter of an NFL preseason football game against the Denver Broncos, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney, File)

Replacement officials probably can’t start the regular season as poorly as they did the preseason.

At least, the NFL is hoping they don’t.

In the very first exhibition game of 2012, referee Craig Ochoa announced that New Orleans won the coin toss. Except Arizona had.

Ochoa immediately made the correction, but that was the beginning of what has been a rocky ride.

Delays could be a common theme for NFL games once the regular season begins this week, and that’s not even the biggest concern.

With no agreement with its locked-out referees union in sight, the league is planning to use replacements for at least the first week of the season. The new crews have been diligent, but a seamless adjustment is impossible in such a short time. Especially considering many of the replacements are going from supervising small college games to policing the sport’s best athletes in front of deafening 75,000-strong crowds.

This all but promises more of the officiating mistakes that have punctuated otherwise-unimportant exhibition games. The questions — Can they keep the game safe? Can they keep up with the speed? Will they avoid game-changing errors? — wont’ stop until the NFL and the regular refs reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

“These crews have officiated our games many, many times. So I think you know and respect and trust their level of expertise and the type of game they are going to call,” New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said of the regular referees. “It’s just like on a team if we say we’re going to put five rookies in front of you and a bunch of first-year players catching the ball and running the football around you: You just don’t have that same level of trust and confidence.”

The NFL insists it does.

“Officiating is an imperfect science,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “They’re not going to be correct all the time, but we have systems in place to try to help.”

The replacements the league is using aren’t used to those systems. With major college refs staying loyal to their current responsibilities, the NFL had to recruit fill-ins from lower levels of the game where the rules are different, the crowds are small and the action unfolds at a slower pace.

“The replacement officials continue to improve every week as we continue to work intensively on their training. Overall, they are doing a good job,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said.

Maybe so, but the gaffes have been glaring.

Penalties called on the wrong players.

Spots of the ball several yards off.

Incomplete or inaccurate explanations of on-field rulings.

Buffalo fans booed when a punt by the Bills was downed at the 4-yard line and the back judge nevertheless ruled the play a touchback. Coach Chan Gailey challenged, and the spot was changed.

In Denver, officials misinterpreted Broncos coach John Fox’s attempt to challenge the spot of the ball after the 49ers recovered their own fumble. Fox was actually assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for challenging the recovery before an NFL rep talked with the crew for several minutes on the sideline. The flag was picked up without explanation. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh was hollering for the penalty. The refs, at least temporarily, bought his argument.

Playing at Minnesota, San Diego coach Norv Turner had to throw two challenge flags after turnovers forced by his team were disallowed on the field but contradicted by video replays.

Aiello said the league “cast a wide net and invited applications from experienced college football officials at all levels.” Ochoa’s crew at the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 6 included those with experience in the Arena League, the major college conferences and the NCAA Division II and Division III levels. Ochoa previously worked in the Big Ten — and, yes, the women’s Lingerie Football League.

So they know the sport, and they care enough about the profession to put themselves through the gantlet of officiating a typical NFL game.

“My concern is that the replacement referees get too cautious. In other words, the easiest way for them to disappear is to keep the flag in their pocket,” said NBC television analyst Cris Collinsworth, a former receiver with the Bengals. “I think that even the players are starting to get a little sense of that right now, that maybe they can push the envelope just a little bit more than what they’ve done in the past. And if that’s the case, then maybe we get players who get a little more aggressive than we would’ve seen otherwise.”

In 2011 with the regular officials, an average of 13 penalties for 109 yards was issued per preseason game. That number entering the 2012 preseason finales last Thursday was up only slightly, an average of 13.4 penalties for 117.7 yards per exhibition game, according to research by STATS LLC.

Teams are under orders not to criticize the officiating. Thus, much of the August analysis has been couched in diplomacy.

“They’re trying their hearts out,” Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said.

Said St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher: “Even in games where you have your regular officials there are going to be penalties that are missed, OK?”

Quipped Chicago coach Lovie Smith: “We complain. It doesn’t matter who’s over there.”

Players have been more outspoken. Bears kicker Robbie Gould called the replacement refs “clueless” on Twitter and rhetorically asked the NFL when it stopped “caring about the integrity of the game.”

Minnesota quarterback Sage Rosenfels tweeted about “watching lowlights” from the “overmatched” officials in preseason games and predicted a “PR mess” for the league if the regulars weren’t returned.

“We’re fortunate because we can look at the big screen and see the replays, but it’s tough for them,” Indianapolis safety Antoine Bethea said.

Vikings punter Chris Kluwe pointed to the fine line between success and failure in this ultra-competitive league.

“Look at last year: The Giants, the eventual Super Bowl champions, they were one game out from not making the playoffs,” Kluwe said. “So if you get one bad call that takes a game the complete other way, the entire season’s different.”

The NFL and the NFL Referees Association, which covers more than 120 on-field officials, are at odds over salary, retirement benefits and operational issues. The NFL has said its offer includes annual pay increases that could earn an experienced official more than $200,000 annually by 2018. The NFLRA has disputed the value of the proposal, insisting it would ultimately reduce their compensation.

Part of the league’s plan is also to begin hiring some full-time officials. Currently, they’re all part-timers who have other jobs.

The two sides met Saturday but came away with no agreement and no announced date to meet again.

On Sunday, the league sent teams a memo saying it upped its offer to the union and thought it was close to a deal, but the union said “there was no agreement … to do anything other than to meet on Saturday. Any claim that numbers were agreed to before Saturday is absolutely false.”

In a memo obtained by The Associated Press, the NFL said that on Saturday “the officials immediately did an about-face and made clear that they had no intention of settling within the agreed-upon parameters.”

So Week 1 in 2012 probably will be like Week 1 in 2001. That year, the NFL used replacements for the first week of the regular season before a contract was completed.

NFL policy generally prohibits officials from speaking to the media, and the replacements are no exception. Little is known about what they’ve seen, heard and felt over the past month. But those who have lived it before have a good idea.

Tom Perrault, the supervisor of officials for the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, an NCAA Division III league, spent 40 years on the field refereeing games at all college levels including the Big Ten. As he worked his way up, he found the differences from division to division difficult to adjust to.

“Every transition for me was a big challenge. It took me three to five years before I really felt comfortable working with the speed and the size of those players,” Perrault said.

Plus, there’s the scrutiny that comes with the NFL game.

“Just the atmosphere and the intensity and the electricity of those stadiums, they’ve never experienced that before on that field while trying to concentrate and having the best athletes in the world playing football,” Perrault said.


AP Football Writers Rob Maaddi, Arnie Stapleton and Barry Wilner, AP Sports Writers Tom Canavan, R.B. Fallstrom, Jon Krawczynski, Larry Lage, Michael Marot, and AP freelance writer Gene Chamberlain contributed to this report.


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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.