NFL Officials Lockout: How the League (and Replacements) Will Suffer

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NFL Officials Lockout: How the League (and Replacements) Will Suffer
Veterans Clete Blakeman, Garth DeFelice and Tony Veteri Keep the Peace With a Raiders Lineman

The NFL is telling you that the replacement officials can grow into their new jobs. What the league isn’t telling you is that it will take 1,385 years.

That number represents the collective NFL experience of the officials the league has locked out. That’s a pretty stark contrast to the replacements’ experience, whose aggregate years in the league total zero.

Why is experience important? Because it’s a hard job—much harder than the average fan realizes. And it’s especially true in the NFL. It takes rookie officials time to grow into it. But as they do, they are surrounded on the field by veterans with long histories.

Replacement officials don’t have that support. They are 119 rookies working in sports' brightest and hottest spotlight. They have an unenviable task.

No one is surprised when it takes several seasons for a rookie quarterback to adjust to professional football. Fans understand that it is a difficult position and the NFL is more complicated and faster than college football.

But few understand the rookie official’s learning timetable is not unlike the quarterback’s. The first problem is the game’s speed. New officials are amazed at how much faster the NFL plays the game.

Speaking in "The Third Team—NFL Officials; Their Lives Their Stories," Red Cashion, the well-known former referee, who has served as a league officiating trainer since 1997, said, “The pros are so much faster at every position.” And in the same book, NFL head linesman and trainer Sid Semon said the preseason games aren’t as fast as they are when the regular season starts. So what the replacements see now isn’t what they would see when the bell rings for games that count.

Umpire Garth DeFelice with Raiders Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly

Cashion, Semon and many others describe a phenomenon that seems incomprehensible to the layperson. After years of watching games at NFL speed, the officials develop a neuro-optic sense that somehow allows them to see fast-action plays, such as toe-dot sideline catches, as if watching them in slow motion. But this skill only comes with years of judging games at NFL speeds.

And speed is only one problem. The NFL has its own officiating philosophy handed down from its Competition Committee. Knowing when the league does and doesn’t want certain fouls enforced becomes part of the learning.

Penalties for holding and pass interference are but two rule applications that have can huge effects on a game. They require a refined eye and judgment that come with time. Coming to understand when the committee wants them called or not is part of the initiation.

Then there is the atmosphere. Forget that they are working in a stadium generating uncomfortable noise levels, or that millions are watching on television critiquing the action along with the announcers. Officials in few sports absorb abuse like that delivered from NFL sidelines.

There are no technical fouls or throwing players or coaches out of the game for verbal onslaughts. Ignoring the insults while concentrating on the next play is yet another skill gathered with experience.

An official isn't allowed to work a Super Bowl until they have accumulated five years of experience in the NFL. Former head of officials Mike Pereira said that "that's really how long it takes to get to your best in the NFL."

How then, does any rookie official make it in the NFL? By being surrounded by experience. Like teams playing the game, the officiating crew functions only if it works well as a team.

A rookie head linesman will be on the same sideline as a veteran side judge. The two will work in tandem. There will also be an experienced line judge on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. With coordinated duties, the team brings the rookie along. The referee, as crew chief, who spends about 60 hours a week on league business, will spend many of those hours mentoring.

And one doesn’t become a referee and crew chief without having spent, multiple seasons working at another position. When promoted, the referee is given an experienced crew.

A young official is sometimes said to have a “deer-in-the headlights” look. It helps to have a veteran infrastructure to overcome it.

But the replacements have none. The season could start with nothing but rookie officials, all of whom could have deer-like expressions without having experienced help to draw from.

Andrew Luck is going to have growing pains. How much more painful would they be if the entire Colts roster was filled with nothing but rookies?  

As to how the lockout could affect the scores, 48% of the regular-season games in 2012 were decided by seven points or less. Any game can be affected by a single officiating decision—especially a close one.

Former coach Steve Mariucci said in "The Third Team" that the difference between officiating in the NFL and in college is like the difference between a lion tamer and a guy walking around holding a leash at a dog show.

The replacements are now taming the lions. Here’s hoping successful negotiations between the NFL and the locked out officials will rescue the game and the replacements from the lion’s cage.

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