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Will replacement NFL officials make a difference in the game?

July 19, 2012|By Chuck Schilken
  • Referee Tony Corrente looks on during a game between the Denver Broncos and the New York Jets in 2010.
Referee Tony Corrente looks on during a game between the Denver Broncos… (Barry Gutierrez / Associated…)

Writers from around Tribune Co. discuss how games might be affected if the NFL referee lockout extends into the regular season. Check back throughout the day for their responses and join the conversation with a comment of your own.

Matt Vensel, Baltimore Sun

As is the case in any profession, you can expect a drop-off when the best in the business are sitting on the sidelines. This applies to NFL referees as much as it does to its starting quarterbacks and skilled workers away from the gridiron — surgeons, master chefs and hair stylists too.

But even though the replacement officials aren’t likely to butcher the rules like that woman at the hair salon chain at the mall did to my hair last time around, there will be differences — some subtle and some not.

The expansion of replay may prevent game-changing missed calls, but veteran NFL official Ed Hochuli says  that replacement officials threw between one and five penalty flags a game in 2001, the last time replacements were used. And if flags were to fly more frequently this time, the pace of the game may be slowed as the guys in stripes huddle up to interpret the rules.

The NFL must resolve this dispute to ensure that the game’s top players remain the story, not shoddy officiating.

[Updated at 12:16 p.m.:

Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times

This situation has the potential to be a mess for the NFL. Because many supervisors of several major college conferences are current or former NFL officials, those supervisors will not allow their officials to be pro replacements. What’s more, nine of the top retired officials – well known zebras such as Red Cashen, Ron Botchan and Jerry Markbreit – have refused the league’s request to train replacements.

So the league has reached into the high school and junior college ranks to assemble a group of replacements, and lacks qualified officials to train them. As the speed of the game increases, from the first to third exhibition game, then to the regular season, the glaring mistakes could start piling up.

When replacements were used in 2001, there were some embarrassing situations – including one in which an official asked Jerry Rice for an autograph before a game. The first time someone makes an obviously bad call – and it’s bound to happen – fans will go crazy. Officials are like offensive linemen – you’re much more likely to notice a poor performance than a great one.

Omar Kelly, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Quick, name an NFL referee whose name isn't Ed Hochuli, who gained his popularity because of his bulging muscles and not for making sensational calls in a game.

If you're a gambler, you might know a few more, but referees are typically invisible most of the season. Or at least they should be, blending into the fabric of America's favorite game.

That's why it's hard to imagine the NFL would look any different with a new breed of replacement referees culled from the collegiate ranks. As long as we're not talking about this billion-dollar sport hiring officials from the Pop Warner and high school level, or NBA and MLB refs switching sports, it would be premature to say that using replacements would have a negative effect.

There's no harm in going the replacement route for a few months and seeing what happens.

Vaughn McClure, Chicago Tribune

Here is the Bears’ Brian Urlacher, talking about the possibility of playing football with replacement officials:

"Were the refs that we had before good? Seriously, it doesn’t really matter. Yes, there are officials that have been around a while and you know their names and have relationships. But at the same time, it doesn't matter."

Urlacher has a point. Players won’t have a choice in the matter and will adjust accordingly. But if history repeats itself, replacement officials could benefit hard-hitting defensive players and adversely affect quarterbacks.

When replacement officials worked games in 2001, referee Ed Hochuli said those officials threw between 1-5 penalty flags per game. That is a significant difference from the 12-14 flags whistled by regular NFL officials last season.

A player might sneak by with an illegal hit in front of a replacement official that he would never get away with in front of a seasoned veteran official. In turn, the game might become more dangerous, as some already have implied would be the end result.

As much as players might normally complain about officiating, they might have a better appreciation of the NFL’s regular officials if replacements step in.


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