We all saw the debacle that was the replacement ref experiment. Sure, referee contract disputes are nothing new to the NFL, but it had never gone this far into the regular season, nor had the league ever had to pull from such an unqualified pool of replacement candidates before.
The NFL took a big gamble operating from the belief that nobody really cares enough about referees. People just want to see their favorite players playing their favorite sport. After all, fans will complain about calls no matter who the refs are, right?
Well, as shown by the level of ineptitude demonstrated throughout the first three weeks of the season, requiring highly unqualified personnel to make split-second decisions on national television while interpreting a rule book the size of the dictionary was actually a really bad idea, but who woulda thunk it, right?
As hoped for by regular officials, the value of these highly skilled and trained individuals is only now being fully appreciated. It was heartwarming to witness the friendly smiles and gentle embraces between players and refs across the nation when the regular referees returned.
It was as if for a brief moment the cats and dogs of the world stopped to shake hands with one another and express their appreciation for all the years of being such a worthy adversary. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes losing what you had, before you can truly appreciate it.
NFL owners wanted to change the entitlement and ego of the referees.They must love seeing Hochuli on the cover of SI...— Andrew Brandt (@adbrandt) October 3, 2012
Now that the refs are finally back, what’s there to appreciate?
Beyond the calls being more consistent and accurate, the rules being interpreted correctly and games running more efficiently, there’s also a professional relationship developed over time between officials and players—a relationship fine-tuned and nearly perfected to the point where valuable trust had been developed. This level of trust helped to reduce unnecessary penalties while giving the sport noticeable continuity.
Referees are not out to call every single hold, grab, bump or hit they see. In fact, the most experienced and usually the best referees are the ones capable of promoting a contest played both fairly and without an excess of penalties.
But how is this achieved?
Well, officials are in constant communication with the players, much more than people may think throughout an NFL football game, giving them warnings and setting up a system of rules that players are then given the choice to abide by or deviate from.
If an act is blatant and egregious enough, the referee will then be forced to bypass any warning and immediately throw the flag. But typically throughout the first quarter, players are extended some wiggle room in regard to their tactics against the opponent in order to feel out the confines of the game.
Generally speaking, referees are not hard-nosed or power-hungry. Most of them are surprisingly capable of putting events into their proper context; for example, defensive pass-interference calls are much less likely to be called during the final drive of a game.
The most skilled refs are wise to always be wary of a game being won or lost because of a penalty. For this reason, typically only the most obvious calls will be called during critical moments. This also goes for safety-type penalties, such as helmet-to-helmet contact and unnecessary roughness.
Essentially, these highly trained officials generally know when to get out of the way and let players just play the game with fire, passion and intensity in tiny windows of nostalgia reminiscent of the way the game was meant to be played.
These are the types of nuances we were missing during the first three weeks of the season.
So what have we learned from the referee lockout debacle?
- People will continue to watch football regardless of how upsetting the officiating is to us.
- NFL players will exploit any perceived advantage that may be available to them.
"I think somebody said that the players kind of look to us like the substitute schoolteacher syndrome, like 'let’s see what we can get away with.' And that was pretty evident."—Jerry Frump (replacement ref)
- NFL rules are pretty complicated and often require a great deal of interpretation and subjective judgment.
- As bad as we thought the refs were before, we now know without question it can get a whole lot worse.
From one year to the next, NFL officials will be getting a hefty pay raise of an average of $24,000 per year.
Few people seem to realize that in order for the league to improve upon the current system of refereeing, they would have to fight the resistance of a unionized workforce. Essentially the NFL was trying to implement a system that allowed the option for some referees to be full-time employees.
In addition, the league also wanted to have a bench of refs trained and ready to replace any officials who were significantly underperforming.
This was a big obstacle being pushed by the league with the intent to increase the quality of performance.
Perhaps the NFL mega-machine was not the monster it was perceived to be in all of this hoopla. Maybe it was necessary to endure collateral damage in the short term in order to improve the overall product for the foreseeable future.
Aside from the significantly improved product taking the field every Sunday now that the lockout is behind us, what I’m most thankful for is no longer hearing the obsessive complaining about the refs and how terrible they were in what became a weekly issue constantly overshadowing the game itself.
We can now return our focus to its rightful place—the action, the players and who Roger Goodell will fine this week for playing too rough.