Rarely, it seems, have some NFL players, coaches and fans longed so much to see yellow flags tossed and penalty announcements made by Ed Hochuli, Mike Carey and the other referees they have spent countless Sundays disparaging in the past.
The NFL season begins this week and, barring a last-minute breakthrough in the negotiations that resumed late in the week but stalled again Saturday, will start with the sport’s regular referees far away from the field.
The league used replacement officials during the preseason and has said that it intends to keep doing so if needed during the regular season, which begins Wednesday night in East Rutherford, N.J., with a nationally televised game between the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champions, and the Dallas Cowboys. There is a full slate of opening-weekend games scheduled for next Sunday, including the Washington Redskins playing at New Orleans.
The preseason included its share of officiating gaffes. And after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote a letter to fans in advance of the season that touched on topics of player health and safety, Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita wrote Friday on Twitter: “Dear NFL, Thank you for your letter to fans on player safety [and] the integrity of the game. Now can the refs please come back to work? Thanks.”
Fujita perhaps is not a neutral observer, given that he is among the four players suspended by Goodell in connection with the bounty scandal involving the Saints. But he is not alone. Many players and media members were sharply critical of the work of the replacement officials during the preseason. Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe called the replacement officials “horrible” and the situation “kind of embarrassing” via Twitter. Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz told the New York Times that an officiating mistake earlier in the preseason was “mind-boggling.”
A steep learning curve
Other reactions have been more measured.
“It would be different if you were breaking in one new guy, two new guys on a crew,” veteran Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said last week. “But you’ve got whole crews that are new to the pro game of football. It’s just officiated totally different. Obviously there are some calls that you look and see and you’re like, ‘Man, wow.’ But for us, both teams have to deal with it. It’s just something you’ve got to deal with. Hopefully they’ll get better as the season goes on and the more experience they get. It’s really like a rookie coming into the NFL. You hope they improve each and every week.”
There are hopes that a deal could be struck between the league and the NFL Referees Association in time to have the regular officials back for the opening of the season.
The league informed its teams in a memo Wednesday that it intended to begin the season with the replacement officials on the field. According to that memo, there remained considerable differences between the two sides on economic issues, including salary and pension, and non-economic matters, such as the league’s desire to increase the number of officials and make some of them full-time employees.