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Published: Friday, 9/28/2012

Blame NFL, not fill-ins for referee fiasco

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Upon further review, the NFL’s replacement officials were mostly incompetent, out of their element, confused, inconsistent, overmatched, blinded by the glare of the spotlight, or maybe, as the Green Bay Packers might suggest, just plain blind.

But none of what happened the last few weeks, beyond opting to be scabs, was their fault. Blame the NFL owners and commissioner Roger Goodell for playing hardball over what, for this league, is pocket change.

Yes, it’s amazing what the league’s part-time officials are paid, and it’s equally amazing what kind of pension benefits they accrue. But this is a multi-billion-dollar business, and it is now apparent the regular officials are worth every penny.

The NFL gambled needlessly and lost. It is too late for the Packers, Lions, Patriots, Redskins, and Broncos — all lost games that were possibly influenced by poor officiating — but the players, coaches, fans, and, of course, the regular officials are the clear-cut winners.

The lockout is over not because of an accumulation of bad calls in an accumulation of games, but because of one ruling in one game, Monday night’s debacle in Seattle where the Seahawks were awarded a win overGreen Bayon a truly bogus game-ending decision. When Goodell suggested Thursday that the timing of the deal was not a reaction to the MNF game, I hope you all felt free to laugh out loud.

There is a story from 1972, purely apocryphal, after Franco Harris’ “immaculate reception” for a Pittsburgh touchdown in a playoff game against Oakland at the old Three Rivers Stadium. No one on the field seemed to know for certain whether the ball caught by Harris caromed off a Raiders defender or a Steelers receiver. The former would make Harris’ catch legal; the latter would not.

There was no instant replay back then, but referee Fred Swearingen went into a baseball dugout and phoned the press box to talk to the NFL’s supervisor of officials, who may or may not have seen a replay on TV. When he hung up, one story goes that Swearingen turned to a member of his crew and asked, “How many people are in this stadium?” He then stepped back onto the field and said, “Touchdown, Pittsburgh.”

The referee in the Green Bay-Seattle game may have had a similar thought when he came out from under the hood, looked around, and said, “Touchdown, Seattle.” It most clearly was not, and the NFL’s attempt to defend the call may have been more ludicrous than the call itself.

The case of “simultaneous possession” led to an equally unlikely case of spontaneous human combustion for all of the replacement refs.

But, again, none of this is their fault. They were a collection of officials from the lower levels of college football and the arena leagues and, supposedly, even one guy who had been dismissed by the Lingerie Football League, which is not watched for its officiating.

Despite whatever training they received, they were in no way prepared for the speed of a game played at the highest level, a game which places every call under a microscope. As a result, the legitimacy of the NFL’s product was undermined.

Goodell and the league’s always-greedy owners insisted the replacement refs would get better, but they did not, and, finally, they incorrectly decided the outcome of a game. They were placed on an unfamiliar stage for which they were not suited, and everyone who has a stake in the game, from the fans to the Packers, paid a steep price.

All because the NFL tried a power play to save a few bucks. Thankfully, the league waved a white flag before there was further damage to its product.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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