Denver Broncos Coach John Fox argued with referees in the “Monday Night Football” game with the Atlanta Falcons. (John Bazemore / AP)

The NFL has warned owners, general managers and coaches about on-the-field behavior toward the replacement referees it has hired while the labor dispute with regular refs continues.

“We contacted them to remind them that everyone has a responsibility to respect the game,” NFL executive vice president Ray Anderson told ESPN. “We expect it to be adhered to this weekend and forevermore.”

The replacement refs had a particularly difficult Sunday as they struggled like substitute teachers to maintain order. The tipping point for the league, though, may have come Monday night, when, during an hourlong first quarter, Denver Broncos Coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio gave the replacements an earful. Since then, pressure to bring back the regular refs has intensified.

As ESPN points out, the NFL has not reached out in this way to teams since that Sunday in October 2010, when a series of helmet-to-helmet hits on unsuspecting receivers offered one sobering image on the heels of another.

And, if a coach chews out a replacement ref this weekend? An NFL coach has never been ejected from a game and only Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints has been suspended. “If someone were to make that mistake,” Anderson told ESPN, “he would be flagged on the field and he would be hearing from our office in a very firm way.”

The NFL, clearly, is trying to restore order — or at least the illusion of it — in what feels like its Billy Tubbs moment. About a trillion years ago, when asked to take the mic and calm fans during a college basketball game, the Oklahoma coach begged them to pipe down “no matter how bad the officiating gets.”

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Integrity of the game is on the line

Pressure grows to bring back regular refs

The NFL’s pivotal Sunday in 2010

Injuries and fines from a nasty Sunday in 2010

The NFL’s 2010 warning on hits