This season, officiating in the National Football League has hit an all-time low. The zebras are being done in by their herd instinct.

Maybe it's because they've been saddled with too many subjective calls. Maybe they're getting old. Maybe they're getting scared. Who knows why? Whatever the reason, NFL officiating is done too often by consensus. Every time there's a controversial decision-in-the-making, the guys in the striped shirts gather about in self-protection. They huddle to talk over the situation and then, apparently, they vote, or maybe one guy has all the votes.

NFL spokesman Jim Heffernan says the league calls these huddles conferences and says they come about whenever there is a doubt about what happened. The referee is the one in charge and he is instructed to get the viewpoint of as many other officials as possible who saw a questionable play before making a decision.

Still, how many times this year have you seen the official closest to the action throw a flag, only to be overruled by another member of the crew? It happens each and every week; at least once, seemingly, in every game.

One of the most flagrant examples occurred in Buffalo the Monday night the Bills played Miami. The Dolphins sacked Joe Ferguson in the end zone. The official threw his flag, indicating a safety. But he was talked out of seeing what he saw by another official -- and Don Shula quite properly threw a tizzy.

So it goes, week in and week out. I no longer pretend to know what constitutes holding by an offensive lineman, or what pass interference is. What I do know is that the calls of the various officiating crews are terribly inconsistent. It must be driving the coaching staffs crazy.

Professional football, accordingly, is becoming much like college basketball. The first quarter often has to be played very cautiously, for the players to see how the officials are going to call the game -- loose or tight. A couple of holding calls against a young, inexperienced offensive line in the opening moments can be devastating in terms of how that line performs the remainder of the game. Officiating can be more intimidating than any tactic by the opposition.

The time has come -- came, in fact, a decade ago -- for NFL officials to be full-time professionals, not weekend whistle blowers who work Monday through Friday as lawyers, veterinarians or whatever. NFL owners, unfortunately, are too cheap to pay for full-timers. Until they do, fans and players alike must suffer through more and more of this hit-or-miss flag waving.

The NFL, through Heffernan, explains that if officials became full-time professionals, "We feel we would lose our best men, the men who are doing it as an avocation as opposed to a vocation." That's because, Heffernan said, the league's salaries couldn't compete with the private sector even though officiating has the highest departmental budget of any in the league.

A 15-year official draws $1,200 a game in the regular season. A first-year man gets $450. In the playoffs, up through the conference championship games, it's $3,000 a man. For the Super Bowl, it's $5,000.

There is, perhaps, only one aspect of officiating to be taken for granted: if it is a marginal call, and the game is on the line, the officials will see it the home team's way 80 percent of the time. That's always been true.

The Las Vegas line on this weekend's games finds San Francisco favored by 10 points over Cincinnati, Cleveland 2 at Buffalo, New Orleans 2 over Green Bay, Pittsburgh 13 1/2 over Houston, Seattle 5 1/2 over Kansas City, the Los Angeles Raiders 1 1/2 at Chicago, St. Louis 6 over the Los Angeles Rams, Miami 7 at the New York Jets, Denver 5 1/2 over New England, Dallas 7 over the New York Giants, Detroit 3 over Philadelphia, San Diego 6 at Indianapolis, Minnesota 2 1/2 over Tampa Bay and (Monday night) Washington 10 1/2 over Atlanta.

I will go with Chicago, St. Louis and Washington for an imaginary $250 each.

The Bears and the Cardinals continue to be the most underrated teams in the league. That has been true for nearly a month, and it still holds. St. Louis has the NFL's best offense; the Bears the best defense.

The Cardinals' offense is better balanced than Miami's. Neil Lomax is darn good, and Ottis Anderson and Stump Mitchell are excellent. All three are particularly effective on their artificial turf at home.

The Rams play solid defense. Their trouble is at quarterback, where Jeff Kemp is limited. He can be protected from his shortcomings just so long. Against the top teams, he is going to have to emerge from the cocoon that Coach John Robinson constructed for him. The Rams don't figure to score as frequently as the Cardinals, not with Eric Dickerson limping slightly. Give the 6.

The Bears are physical enough to slug it out with the Raiders, although quarterback Jim McMahon must have a good game if they are to prevail. The wrist injury appears to restrict McMahon's effectiveness to the first half, then the injections wear off. I would have risked more than $250 on this game had the Raiders not been so unlucky in losing to Denver Sunday. Now they're going to be mad, and much tougher, despite the injuries at linebacker. Take the 1 1/2.

I dare the Redskins to play as poorly as they did Sunday in the Meadowlands. They still are hurting at several key positions, but Atlanta has the knack of helping rivals get healthy in a hurry. Steve Bartkowski has not thrown effectively for nearly a month. He must be aching. Washington has a soft schedule over the next five weeks and should regroup here. Give the 10 1/2.