By Shalise Manza Young
FOXBOROUGH — The NFL and the officials’ union finally reached an agreement on Wednesday night to end the lockout that had forced inexperienced replacements to oversee the first three weeks of regular-season games.
The eight-year deal was met with relief and elation from many, including players and fans.
Some Patriots were tight-lipped about the return of the “real” officials. Though there were some egregious calls and non-calls on both sides in Sunday night’s loss to the Ravens, the Patriots’ mantra since Monday has been that players and coaches will control what they can control.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t a couple of Patriots willing to talk on Thursday about the end of the lockout, and how it will impact games.
Rob Ninkovich said it was odd to see people excited about officials.
“Usually everyone’s complaining,” he said. “When a flag is thrown everyone is yelling anyway. It’s something that you’re going to have to deal with no matter who is reffing. A flag is going to be thrown. So you still deal with it the same way — just play ball.”
The replacement officials, many of whom were from NCAA Division 3 or NAIA — where the speed of the game and size and athleticism of the players cannot compare with the NFL — made frequent gaffes, ranging from giving extra timeouts to situations where player safety was compromised.
The miscues were controversial, though none more than the final call of Monday night’s Green Bay-Seattle game, when it appeared Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings had control of a Hail Mary pass from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, beating out receiver Golden Tate, who did get a hand on the ball.
While one official waved his arms to signal no completion, the other signaled a touchdown, and that ruling was upheld on review, citing the simultaneous-catch rule.
The league supported the call, which gave Seattle the victory, though it said the officials missed an offensive pass-interference call that should have ended the game.
The call was the tipping point for many NFL observers; a reported 70,000-plus fans called league headquarters on Tuesday to complain. During a Thursday conference call, commissioner Roger Goodell downplayed the Monday night debacle as accelerating the negotiating process, saying the sides had been in “intensive negotiations” for the last two weeks.
Patriot Matthew Slater said confidence will be restored with the return of the experienced officials.
“It’s no knock on those guys that were subbing in. They were put in such a tough position, it’s a tough job to do, the game moves very fast, and they did the best that they could,” Slater said. “But these guys have experience and you take a little more confidence in guys that have experience, and hopefully the game will be called cleanly and fairly for all sides.”
A crew headed by Gene Steratore, an NFL official since 2003 and referee since 2006, officiated Thursday night’s game between the Ravens and Browns in Baltimore, and the regular crews will be at all games this weekend.
John Parry, the referee for last season’s Super Bowl, and his crew have been assigned to Sunday’s Patriots-Bills game in Buffalo.
“Nobody is to blame in this situation,” said Slater. “It was a tough situation for all parties and now that it’s resolved we can just move forward.’’
It would be foolish to assume the regular officials won’t miss some calls going forward, but they have the authority and respect of players and coaches after working so many games. They also know how to communicate with coaches and players.
“That’s always the No. 1 thing,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “From the time we meet with the officials in the spring to when officials come to training camp to before every game when we meet with officials, both in pregame and on the field when we meet with the referee, the thing that we always communicate about is communication.
“[Officials will ask], ‘Are there any special plays that we should be aware of?’, ‘Is there anything you want us to be aware of?’, ‘If there are any challenges or anything happens on the field, we’ll let you know. If you don’t get the information, you go to the side judge or the line judge and he’ll come to me and we’ll communicate all that.’
“We always go through those things, from the beginning of the season, every game and then within every game.”