Eisenberg: Replacement Refs Will End In Fiasco


There was the guy who kept referring to the Ravens' opponents in their exhibition opener as the Arizona Falcons. That was a good one.

There was the return specialist for the New York Giants who was called for holding … while returning a punt. Couldn't help but giggle at that.

And how about 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh's reaction to the calls of the referees in his team's exhibition loss in Houston last weekend?

"I've got a headache," he said.

The presence of replacement officials on the field during the unfolding NFL preseason has definitely been good for some laughs.

But it's going to stop being funny if a labor dispute with the league keeps the regular officials off the field when the regular season begins. I feel I'm safe in predicting that regular-season NFL games overseen by refs who used to work in the Lingerie Football League is an idea that will not end well.

There is going to be a fiasco, a blown call that costs someone a game. Maybe two or three fiascos, each of which could doom a team's entire season in a league so evenly balanced.

Fans will raise a ruckus. Players and coaches will try to bite their tongues and probably fail. And the networks will replay the botched calls over and over, the endless loop driving home the point that the regular refs are as integral to a well-staged game as the football itself.

I'm not sitting at the bargaining table, so I can't pretend to know the inner workings of the labor impasse between the league and the referees' union. But with the NFL now up to some $9.5 billion in annual revenues, I'm guessing there is enough in the petty cash drawer to get this settled. And the approach of the regular season, now just two weeks away, is the kind of deadline that spurs action.

Unless you're just an anarchist who prefers utter chaos, you should get out your pompom and root for a settlement. It really needs to happen.

Look, the replacement guys are doing their best in what is pretty much an impossible situation. But the longer they're out there botching calls and struggling to maintain the barest standard of acceptability, the clearer the situation becomes:

To uphold the impeccable game quality the league strives for – and its fans are accustomed to – the regular officials are a must.

Oh, sure, fans love to complain about them – in every sport, not just pro football. It's the real national pastime in some respects. Blame the ump.

But the reality is the NFL's regular officials are very good at their jobs. They blow a few, as all refs do, but they get infinitely more calls right than wrong.

One of the most popular Monday morning laments about the NFL is that the refs "don't know what they're doing." Oh, yeah? Have you ever seen the inches-thick rulebook they're asked to interpret? It's full of finite technicalities. Offensive lineman can only do this with their hands in the pocket or they're holding. Defensive backs can only do that with their shoulders in coverage or they're guilty of pass interference.

The referees not only uphold the law correctly on the vast majority of calls, but they do it in real time, on national TV, with the specter of instant replay hanging over them.

That's a daunting degree of difficulty, but they're up to it for the most part, which is why they want a raise, as everyone does.

Their leverage is only increasing as the preseason rolls on and the laughs pile up.

With regular refs on the job, you could watch a hundred NFL games without seeing three offensive linemen get flagged for being illegally downfield on routine passing plays, as was the case during the Ravens' game against the Lions last week. (That's one rule they really had down.)

But you'll never see the refs fail to stop the clock after a penalty, preventing a team from getting a few downfield cracks at the end of the first half – a lamentable fate that befell Jim Harbaugh's squad last week.

Once the games count, a mistake like that could determine the arc of a team's entire season. Really, enough said.

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