This article is not an attack on the NFL's replacement referees, hard-working veterans of the Lingerie League and regional Pop Warner semifinals, dreamers who dare to ask for patience from thousands of seething, impatient football fans while they take another look at the replay.
This article is not an attack on the NFL or the owners, who could solve the referee lockout with the kind of money Jerry Jones spends on scoreboard light bulbs, but are entitled to stand firmly on their principle of swatting dissenters like mosquitoes, even if this mosquito has landed on an eyelid and there's a pickaxe glued to their swatting hands.
This article is simply a cry for help. We've seen so much comical, blundering, inept officiating over the last four weeks that it has overshadowed the comical, blundering, inept play we've come to expect from preseason football. It has been so bad that many fans (and writers) rationalize the experience. "The officiating hasn't been that bad," we say. "The regular refs make mistakes, too. Why, I don't know how many times I've seen roughing the punter called on an off-tackle handoff."
Someone, anyone, please rescue us from some of the "highlights" we have endured in the past month.
Heads, I Win; Tails, No Clue: On the coin toss that opened the Hall of Fame game, replacement referee Craig Ochoa announced that the Saints had won the toss and deferred, then quickly corrected himself, saying that the Cardinals had won the toss. As omens go, this is like walking out of the house for your first day on the job and falling straight down a mineshaft.
The Inaccurate Birder's Field Guide: A few days later, Ochoa revealed his tenuous grasp on geography by referring to the Atlanta Falcons as "Arizona" several times during penalty announcements, in Atlanta. In fairness, Ochoa refereed for the Arizona Cardinals the previous week (in Canton, nowhere near Arizona), and may have had post-traumatic stress disorder from that difficult coin toss.
The sad thing here is that it is impossible to arrive at Atlanta airport, spend hours on its internal rail system and endless moving walkways, and not be certain that you are trapped in either Atlanta or some horrific Ridley Scott dystopia. But then again, replacement officials might be forced to take the bus.
Self-Holding Causes Blindness: During the Giants-Jaguars game, Giants rookie Jayron Hosley was flagged for holding on a punt return. What made this a curious call was that Hosley was the one returning the punt. And while it may be technically possible for him to also be guilty of holding, it's hardly likely. Inspection of the tape revealed that the penalty should have been called on Michael Coe, who wears No. 37, not Hosley, No. 36. It was the most baffling of many player misidentifications during the preseason; in another instance, a guard was called for a snap violation.
The regular refs sometimes misidentify players (particularly in preseason), but not with the frequency of the replacements, who regularly assigned penalties to the injured and long-retired. If a returner can hold while returning, can a passer rough himself? Ken Stabler was known to do so on Saturday nights, but the rules were more lenient back then. And more importantly, if you didn't see the uniform number, did you really see the play?
Victor Cruz, who was on the field for the Hosley call, overheard one referee saying that his only past experience was officiating "glorified high school games." This quote caused some confusion (what's a "glorified" high school game?) but is easily explained. Glorified High School is a charter school outside Glen Burnie, Md., where the lowest possible grade is an A-minus, 50 valedictorians are selected per graduating class and every student plays varsity football, even the ones who accidently swallow their cleats while dressing. So the referee actually officiated Glorified High School games, and parents were pleased as long as none of the children got their feelings hurt.
Touchback for Touchback's Sake: The large television audience who tuned in for Robert Griffin's NFL debut saw the most head-scratching error of the preseason, as a downed punt by Ruvell Martin at the five-yard line was somehow ruled a touchback. Martin fielded the ball cleanly and was nowhere near the end zone. There was no ambiguity whatsoever, except in the minds of the officials, who forced a livid Chan Gailey to use a challenge flag on a play that should have been as routine as, well, a downed punt.
That play, and several other replacement misadventures, can be seen in this entertaining roundup over at Deadspin. Two highlights stand out from the touchback: Punter Brian Moorman, in a baseball cap, looks like Fred Durst circa 1997 as he howls and rants with the "Break Stuff" fury that only a punter robbed of 15 yards worth of preseason net yardage can muster. Meanwhile, backup Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman is in no hurry at all to line up and take advantage of the free field position, giving Gailey plenty of time to throw the challenge flag. You would think that this would be a good time to practice the "rush to the line and run a play to prevent a review" strategy, but the replacements probably aren't too clear on that rule, either.
Upon Further Review, Crime Pays: Chargers safety Eric Weddle committed a clear helmet-to-helmet hit against a Cowboys receiver; the ball popped in the air after the foul, and a Chargers defender intercepted it. The replacements got the foul right but did not quite understand that the roughness penalty negates the turnover: The Chargers retained the ball, but were pushed back 15 yards.
Now, imagine for a moment if one defensive tackle held a quarterback up while the other took aim and slammed head-first into the passer's midsection, jarring the ball loose. The defense recovers the resulting fumble and happily accepts 15 yards in exchange for possession and an incapacitated opponent. That may be taking things to an illogical extreme, or just an illustration of what goes through a Lions defender's mind when he sees a call like that go uncorrected.
Man Hit in Face With Football: Nothing inspires confidence in officiating like seeing a referee react with recoiling terror at the football lobbed in his direction after the play, as Jerry Frump did in the Eagles-Patriots preseason game. Frump's blunder was one of many slapstick moments for the replacement refs, who faced the wrong way when announcing penalties, lost track of how many footballs were on the field, and used arcane syntax that sounded like they were in a badly dubbed anime movie. ("The down remains three!?")
Such silliness had little impact on the games themselves, but experts saw a deeper problem: officials who could not position themselves in the right place or keep up with the flow of play. Replacements weren't just missing calls, but also putting themselves in terrible position to make the calls in the first place. That's the kind of nuts-and-bolts error that doesn't get corrected in four games, which is why the supposed "improvement" in the replacements was just institutionalized wishful thinking, as the final incidents illustrate.
The Ruling on the Field, Whatever It Was, Stands. Maybe: The Giants punted in the second quarter of their preseason finale against the Patriots. Flags flew. Referee Don King turned on the microphone, and suddenly a football game became a night at the Improv.
King's hand signals looked like a cross between standard NFL penalty symbols, semaphore and a drunk trying to do the "Achy Breaky." His baffling announcement sounded like Andy Kaufman doing Latka Gravas. "We have fouls by both teams, during kick. We have illegal shift by the kicking team. After the kick …" A second official could then be heard, by everyone but King, shouting that both fouls were on the kicking team. "Then after the kick we have a 15-yard penalty …" the referee points in both directions half-heartedly. "Chosen to re-kick. Five-yard penalty."
Most amazingly, the Giants and Patriots somehow followed these instructions and lined up to re-kick, before the combined infuriation of Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick raised the stadium temperature by about 30 degrees. Three painful minutes elapsed. Belichick fumed. Coughlin ran through his lengthy gamut of exasperated, head-shaking expressions, as if he were reliving a lifetime of conversations with Plaxico Burress. Coaches questioned players, referees debated with one another, fans booed.
At about the same time, in the Redskins-Buccaneers game, referee Jim Core checked the replay on a completion, announced his decision, then said, "We'll look at it one more time," and went back under the shroud of privacy. Perhaps someone was piping recent episodes of "Breaking Bad" under the replay hood. Or perhaps the hood has become the replacements' sanctuary, the unmoving air preventing hyperventilation, the dark curtain providing a safe place to pray for guidance, or cry.
Ministry of Truth and Silly Talk: The NFL has responded to replacement criticism with typically Orwellian flair: ignoring it, dismissing it and silencing it whenever possible. A leaked memo from the start of training camp urged coaches and owners to stay on message, offering robotic boilerplate "talking points," such as "our focus is on preparing our team for the coming season. We don't worry about things we can't control." Other bits of newspeak were no doubt disseminated to teams but not leaked. When both Jerry Jones and Bob McNair claim that they "can't see any difference" between real refs and replacements, using nearly the same words, the only logical conclusions are a league memo or an invasion of Stepford Owners.
Ignoring the mounting evidence of ineptitude has forced the league to adopt a stance of dizzying obliviousness. Meanwhile, the dwindling handful of apologists who try to argue that the replacements are doing a helluva job have been forced to give each embarrassing gaffe its own customized explanation: This one wasn't really an error, that one was blown out of proportion, and of course, the real referees make mistakes all the time, even though each gaffe from the last four weeks is roughly equivalent to an error made once in the previous 90 years. Logicians call these spur-of-the-moment deflections ad hoc hypotheses, or if the argument keeps referring back to one famous blown call in 2008, Ed Hoch hypotheses.
Earned Stripes: Negotiations reportedly went from hostile to hopeful after the final round of preseason games, if only because the cliff only looks real when you see it through your windshield. Then, they became hostile again. Still, the NFL has a history of achieving enlightenment in the final hours before doomsday. The real referees could be back tomorrow, or in Week 2. The replacements can return to private lives where they are no doubt successful and competent. It must happen sooner than later. Every day wasted brings the risk of a result tarnished, a season ruined, a player injured because of a late whistle.
And one good thing will come of this lockout: We have learned to respect the job that the real referees do. Football is a fast-paced game with complex, nuanced rules, and we now have proof positive that you cannot just take some guy off a high school football field and make him an NFL official.
We will never doubt the real referees again. Until they blow a call. Which will occur in the first quarter of their first game back.