Flags raised on NFL replacement referees

Substitute officials have been put in a difficult position, but they have to regroup after a disastrous Week 2.
Substitute officials have been put in a difficult position, but they have to regroup after a disastrous Week 2. –mike Ehrmann/getty images

After the first week of the season, when the NFL’s replacement officials slid mostly under the radar, the league must have let out a sigh of relief. Maybe the controversy wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe the backups could bridge the gap and let the league continue its lockout of the regular officials.

Not so the second week. It was, in short, a disaster.

“I think the [replacement] officials are being put in a very difficult position,’’ said Mike Pereira, the former NFL vice president of officiating who now does analysis for Fox. “If you put all the Division 1 college officials, BCS college officials on the field, it would be a very difficult transition for them. To come from the lower levels, you’re even asking more.

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“To expect that they could perform on the same level as the NFL guys that have 1,460-some-odd years of NFL experience is ludicrous. That’s not even a possibility.’’

They haven’t. Not by a long shot.

So, Pereira has said, it’s time for the league to settle. It’s time to replace the replacements with the real thing, the NFL officials who have studied and learned and worked their way up the ladder. It’s time to send the backup referees back to the small colleges and put familiar names back in stripes.

It won’t happen for at least another week. Multiple news sources reported Friday that the NFL and the regular officials met for two days this week, but the sides remain far apart in negotiations, with no further talks scheduled.

Nearly every game last weekend featured a mistake by the replacement referees, some with the outcome on the line. It became clear the officials weren’t fully aware of the rules, that they were being bullied by players, that no one was satisfied with the situation and that it was putting a damper on the season.

As the Ravens’ Bernard Pollard said during a local radio interview this week, “This is way out of their league . . . We have something on hand that is messing up the integrity of the league and nothing is being done about it. These guys need to be out. They need to be out.’’

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The Ravens had two controversial calls go against them in their loss to Philadelphia.

‘‘Missed calls & bad calls are going to happen,’’ Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita wrote on Twitter. ‘‘That’s part of the deal & we can all live with it. But not knowing all the rules and major procedural errors are completely unacceptable. Enough already.’’

The Redskins’ D’Angelo Hall even joked about taking up a collection in the locker room to help settle the dispute and get the regular officials back on the field.

‘‘Officiating is never perfect. The current officials have made great strides and are performing admirably under unprecedented scrutiny and great pressure,’’ NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press this week. Aiello did not respond to an e-mail inquiry from the Globe. ‘‘As we do every season, we will work to improve officiating and are confident that the game officials will show continued improvement.’’

But that’s not enough for most. Not even close. Not when replacement officials are starting to lose control of games.

The infractions have included extra timeouts, incomplete passes ruled as fumbles, incorrect yardage awarded on holding calls, mismanagement of the clock, and a touchdown called back without a flag being thrown.

Pereira pointed to the holding call on the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski last Sunday, which negated a late go-ahead touchdown run in a loss to the Cardinals.
Pereira said it was “not a very strong call. Will they defend it? I think they probably will. But it’s certainly marginal. I know that they would say privately that they wished that wouldn’t have been called.’’

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Perhaps the most egregious mistake in Week 2 occurred in the Rams’ 3-point win over Washington, when coach Jeff Fisher was allowed to challenge a lost fumble by St. Louis near the goal line and it was overturned, leading to a field goal. Coaches are not allowed to challenge turnovers ruled on the field, and it should have resulted in a 15-yard penalty on the Rams.

“The one thing that you have to master first is the rule book,’’ Pereira said. “You have to master it. You actually have to know it 100 percent by heart so it’s second nature when you’re on the field.’’

That unfamiliarity by the replacement officials has slowed the pace of games.

“Football rules are football rules, but the NFL, they have so many differences than college football rules, and it takes forever to master that,’’ Pereira said.

That’s why just one rookie official is assigned to a regular NFL crew. He is to learn from the veterans, to have them by his side. That’s why it takes two seasons for an official to get assigned to a playoff game, and five seasons to earn a Super Bowl assignment.

In this case, practice makes perfect, and the replacement officials have had zero practice.

“It takes that long to get comfortable and to get up to speed to the differences in the rules and the speed of the game,’’ Pereira said. “It’s a ton different than major college football. I can imagine the difference from Division 2 or Division 3 college football is even more dramatic when you step out on the field.’’

The league was forced to replace a side judge in last weekend’s Saints-Panthers game after it was alerted to pictures on Facebook that showed the official tailgating in Saints gear before a preseason game Aug. 25.
Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy said that an official told him on Sunday he needed the running back to perform well
for his fantasy team.

Plus, the issues with the officials are starting to affect how coaches strategize, sometimes forcing them to challenge plays regular officials likely would have gotten right.

Pereira said that there has been an increasing “lack of respect’’ from the players.

“I think they have really felt they can get away with more than they could get away with the regular refs,’’ he said.

For example, Pereira said, it seems that defenders are being allowed more contact against receivers before the pass is thrown, perhaps because of a lack of experience with the illegal contact rule.

“I think you put the players in a difficult position, too,’’ Pereira said. “Because they don’t know what to expect. I think that’s what’s made it hard for players and probably coaches, too. You have the same guys coming out, you know just about how far you can take it. Now they don’t know how far they can take it.

“Not having expectations about what to expect on a week-to-week basis has to be very frustrating to them.’’

There’s also a money angle. According to a report by the Associated Press, the replacement officials might start affecting betting lines in Las Vegas.

At this point, there’s no hiding the officiating problem. More people are watching the NFL than ever before.
Now the question is how the league will handle the replacement fallout, and whether that will affect its bargaining with the locked-out regulars.

“It will be interesting to see how much emphasis the league puts into these officials to get the game back under control,’’ Pereira said. “And we’ll know. We’ll know if all of a sudden we start to see flags left and right to get things under control, and coaches getting flagged if they come off the sideline.

“You hope that flags don’t dominate the games in an attempt just to get them back under control.’’

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