If the NFL didn't want fans to care about the current referee lockout, the first night of the preseason proved just how difficult that task would be. After the first night, it's clear that the replacement refs are a failed experiment and an embarrassment to the league.
It was a calculated gamble, right?
Refs are refs and fans hate all refs. How could this crop of replacements be any worse than Jeff Triplette? Football is football and anyone refereeing a football game is going to make a bunch of mistakes, but hopefully stay out of the way when the game is on the line.
Heck, train some shaved monkeys, give them whistles, and teach them to swallow their whistles with two minutes remaining—it's just that easy!
The Hall of Fame Game was just a harbinger of things to come for the NFL replacement refs. As the league-paid broadcast team raved about the new officials, mistakes piled upon mistakes. The NFLRA issued a press release, "grading" the new refs. What the announcers were calling a cleanly-called game actually wasn't. It was a sloppy game, but the refs weren't making the calls.
Now, some (including B/R's own Matt Miller) have pointed out the irony in that press release. NFL refs are graded after every game, but those results are never made public. How do we know these new refs did any worse than the guys that graded them would have?
The proof came on Thursday night.
Some of the mistakes were simple jitters. One ref forgot to turn his mic off. Another twice referred to Atlanta as Arizona. Awkward, but those mistakes don't exactly change the outcome of the game.
Other mistakes were a little more serious. The referees in Denver had problems spotting the ball:
The refs aren't spotting the football at the right place. If it's based off the previous spot, it should be at the CHI 30. Not the CHI 39.— MaxBroncos (@MaxBroncos) August 10, 2012
In San Diego, a phantom unsportsmanlike conduct was called when Green Bay Packers lineman Nick Perry started giving out tickets to the gun show. A terrible touchback call in Buffalo left fans at home and at the stadium booing. The call was reversed, but only after Buffalo had used a challenge.
Those same refs needed Chan Gailey to tell them how to do their jobs a second time following a delay of game penalty under two minutes.
Taken separately, these mistakes can be forgiven. It's possible these rookie refs will get better and everyone will forget about these jitters. Maybe this is all just some self-fulfilling prophecy and we wouldn't even realize these were replacement refs if we didn't already know.
However, taken together—looking at the full picture of one preseason night—the NFL needs to be embarrassed. The locked out NFLRA just got all the leverage it needed. The media are not going to stay silent on this issue, even if Roger Goodell has ordered teams to do so.
Fans are going to realize this group of refs were just as bad at Division II and III as the NFL refs were in the pros. The speed of the NFL game, along with minor differences in rules and enforcement, are only going to make these new officials' jobs harder.
While, yes, the replacements could eventually acclimate to the NFL, the game will continue to speed up heading toward the regular season. ESPN's Jon Gruden repeatedly pointed out on last night's Chargers-Packers telecast how desperately the real refs will be needed once the real games start.
It's the NFL's move—a night of antics from the replacement refs should send them quickly back to the negotiating table to make a good-faith effort with the NFLRA.
Instead of seeing how little they can pay their officials, the NFL higher-ups should be working on the exact opposite. How can the officials they have be even better? What sort of incentives and offseason training programs could be added? It would be an investment, but the NFL has plenty of capital.
Labor unrest made the 2011 offseason unbearable. If the first night of the preseason was any indicator, labor unrest could do the same to the 2012 season. If the NFL wants to put out the best regular season product for its fans, the new officials need to go.
The replacement refs are a joke, and the joke has officially gotten old.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."
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