NFL Refs Are Back, But Are They Better?

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Referee Gene Steratore, right, and back judge Bob Waggoner, left, are two regular NFL officials who returned to work on Thursday. (AP)
Referee Gene Steratore and back judge Bob Waggoner returned to work on Thursday. (AP)

On Thursday night in Baltimore, the replacement referees were replaced by the fellows they'd replaced when the NFL locked out the officials with whom they had failed to come to an agreement until Wednesday.

Got that? Anyway, as broadcasters noted, when the regular officials took the field, the fans were happy to see them, and the referees appreciated the appreciation.

Happily, the story of what happened during the three weeks of NFL football before the return of the regular referees did not involve any biting. There were bad calls and there were injuries, but nothing tragic transpired. According to Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, speaking before the lockout ended, it could have been otherwise.

[sidebar title=Related align="right"] Only A Game's Doug Tribou takes a look at a Week In the Life of an NFL Official.[/sidebar]“You know, one of the things that's happening is because players can't count on the referees to make fair, accurate calls, they're playing harder and more physically,” Jenkins said. “If you can't count on the referees and you're attempting to ensure the outcome of the game by just playing more physically, that means the game gets needlessly violent.”

The games also got needlessly confusing. Some of the replacement referees were unfamiliar with the rules, and others were tentative even when making the right calls. Still, Scott Schmolke, who created a website called several years ago, hoped fans won't draw the wrong conclusion from the gaffes of the replacements.

“We've seen numerous examples with the replacements over the past few weeks where they were clueless of the rules, but by no means is that exclusive to the replacements,” said Schmolke. “I've seen numerous examples over the years where the regular officials were making mistakes because they were unfamiliar with or blatantly disregarded the rules.”

In the immediate aftermath of the replacement referee fiasco, it's easy to forget that disagreement with the officials early and often, as well as loudly, has long been a feature of games in the NFL. Gregg Doyel, a national columnist for CBS Sports, felt that syndrome should be evident again almost immediately.

“A lot's been given to these guys,” he said. “Well, guess what? Now we're watching you real close. It used to be if you screwed up a game in the 4th quarter, we'd know your name. But if you screwed up in the second quarter, 'Ahh, well, the rest of the game took place and we kind of forgot about that one.'”

Like Gregg Doyel, Scott Schmolke feels the NFL is certainly better off with the regular officials, and he expects the gratitude fans presently feel for their return will soon give way to complaining, griping, moaning, and so on.

“If nothing else the pace of the game will be better, and you'll probably have a safer environment for the players, and I think that's a plus for the players as well as the fans,” Schmolke said. “But I suspect in the long run people will be back to criticizing the officials, just like they always have been.”

If that's the way it goes—and who can really doubt that very soon football fans will exercise their right to squawk at what they perceive to be bad calls regardless of who's wearing the striped shirts—the officials can take some solace in the fact that their work is very difficult. NFL agent and sports attorney John Phillips said no fan should ignore that point.

“I've talked to Ed Hochuli, who's the big muscle referee, this week—and he's a trial lawyer, has tried like 200 civil cases to verdict—and he said that the pressure of an NFL game is far worse than any trial he's ever seen,” Phillips said. “That's going to be the pressure they're under, especially now that they've been held out as being so superior to these other guys.”

If Commissioner Goodell and the men who own NFL teams are lucky, the next few weeks of the season will produce enough football-related excitement to encourage fans to forget about the three weeks featuring the replacement referees. And if the regular officials are fortunate, none of them will commit an error blatant enough to start fans chanting about bringing back the replacements.

Yikes. I hope I haven't jinxed them.

This segment aired on September 29, 2012.

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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