There is a storm brewing. And, no I’m not talking about the wretched performance of the Dallas Cowboys in their first preseason game – it was bad. But, everyone from actual experts to the casual fan has pretty much already weighed in on that front. No where to go but up from that performance. Let’s just hope they get some of the starters back from injury and can put it together before September 5th.
No, what I’m talking about is the on going labor dispute between the NFL and the NFL Referees. Like most fans, I’ve been focused on football and training camps. I was aware that there was an issue with the referees and the NFL similar to last season’s lockout that threatened the entire season. But, frankly I haven’t given it a lot of thought – more concerned about who would play center for the Cowboys or wind up earning the #3 receiver position. But, after watching the first week of preseason with the “replacement officials”, the issue has my full attention.
It’s funny how sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until its gone. I’d say that is the case with NFL referees. We largely take them for granted – until they blow a call that can’t be overturned by instant replay! Watching most of the games this last week, it became painfully obvious how good of a job the professional officials actually do. It’s preseason for the officials too and these guys are not used to the speed of the NFL, but boy oh boy there were some glaring issues! Here are just a few I noticed:
>> Holding is apparently much harder to call when your head is on a swivel just trying not to get trampled (think running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain); in one game, I actually witnessed an offensive lineman put an oncoming linebacker in a bear hug and fall backwards taking him to the ground. Obvious holding, right? Nope. No flags. Its long been said that a referee could virtually call holding on any play in the NFL, but you’ve got to see and call the obvious ones done so flagrantly and right out in the open.
>> In another game, a punt was clearly downed inside the 5-yard line but the ball was placed at the 20 as if it had been a touchback.
>> In the Giants – Jaguars game, the New York punt returner who was carrying the ball was called for holding. Holding what? The ball? Isn’t that what he’s supposed to do?
>> Atlanta was repeatedly called “Arizona” by one official in the Atlanta – Baltimore game.
>> In the Cowboy’s game, Tony Romo had to point out at one point that the ball had been placed on the wrong hash mark.
>> I saw multiple occasions where a receiver was mauled by the defender with no flag and conversely I saw flags thrown for what seemed to be the defender doing nothing more than making eye contact with the receiver.
Lots of mistakes – lots of hesitation and indecision, very little consistency. Most of the locked out NFL referees have been doing this for 10-15 years or longer. There is a definite skill to it and it’s not like plugging another body in does the trick.
I’m not taking the referees side in the dispute by any means. I just have a much better understanding now of what they really do, how difficult it is, and how much it can affect the quality and outcome of a game. The dispute itself as I understand it is essentially about the officials wanting to keep their pension plans while the NFL wants to move to a defined contribution plan (think 401k like most of us have). Additionally, the NFL wants to start adding full-time referees as most NFL officials today have “day jobs”. That sounds good on paper, but the referees are reluctant to give up the security of their regular jobs and they already spend countless hours in preparation, travel, and film study. And, of course, the NFL thinks the previous CBA agreement with the officials was too rich. They want to pay them less and are trying to eke out pennies while the game we all love is going up in flames before their eyes.
There is talk now of the replacement officials being used in the regular season. Think about that for a moment. Football is a game of inches – sometimes literally on a 4th and one! The season opener between the Giants and the Cowboys is most likely at this point to be affected as each side waits for the other to blink. How maddening would it be if that critical game ends up being decided by a bad spot, a phantom pass interference call, or a missed hold? No big deal? Just one game? Not hardly! It’s a division game against a rival that already seems to get every break in the book. No one expects the dispute to impact the entire season. So, how do you level the playing field in a season where a division game was played with replacement officials and the later game wasn’t? Dallas will already have their hands full against the Giants. If the Cowboys lose that game on 9/5 due to an obvious blown call by the replacement officials, it could literally be the reason they sit home come January.
Of course, if the blown call favors the Cowboys, then never mind. I will love the idea of replacement officials - but it never seems to work in our favor.
Come on, NFL! The integrity of the game and the season is at stake. Get over it already and resolve this. There is plenty of money for all of you. Being a Cowboys fan is hard enough these days without having to worry about playing the part time “12th man” in the striped shirt too. Go Cowboys!