Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Can The NFL Recover From Their Officiation Breakdown?

By: Rich Bergeron

A true firestorm of bad publicity, blown calls, and flat out incompetence displayed by the NFL's replacement referees led the league to hammer out an eight-year deal with their officials this week. The September 24th installment of Monday Night Football proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back with the game's final outcome botched by the scab referees. The replacements ruled Monday night's final play a touchdown for the Seattle Seahawks even though it was really a Green Bay Packers' interception.

The resulting controversy reached a crescendo when mainstream news outlets began reporting on the issue outside their sports coverage segments, and talk radio stations also weighed in with a torrent of negative criticism. Even Rush Limbaugh discussed the debacle on his popular political radio show. President Barack Obama himself also voiced his hopes that the league would end the lockout, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that Obama was "very pleased" with the resolution of the labor dispute. At least one casino in Las Vegas also offered refunds to anyone who bet on the Packers to win Monday night.

Yet, Monday night's game was not the only contest negatively impacted by bogus calls this season. Fans, sports pundits, players, and coaches all saw countless examples of often unwarranted and sometimes game-changing penalties in the first few weeks of the 2012 season. The end of the lockout of NFL officials is great news, but it simply can't fix what's already been broken. By the time the playoffs arrive there may be a handful of teams sitting out only because of one of those games decided by poor calls made by incompetent refs.

"The long-term future of our game requires that we seek improvement in every area, including officiating,"
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement affirming the termination of the lockout this week. "This agreement supports long-term reforms that will make officiating better. The teams, players and fans want and deserve both consistency and quality in officiating."

Goodell is right, but hindsight is 20/20 and his sentiment is simply too little too late. Teams, players and fans needed that consistency and quality for the entire season. A perfect indicator of how much of a mess this situation created can be seen in the 8-year term of the new deal for officials. It is the longest such deal in the history of the league, and it's a sign that the NFL never wants to see something like this happen again.

Four coaches also had to pay thousands of dollars over the past two weeks for incidents related to the replacements. Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick took a $50,000 hit for grabbing an official's arm after the team's second straight razor-thin loss Sunday night. Belichick was seeking an explanation as to the review process of a game-winning field goal for Baltimore that soared over one of the uprights. Redskins' Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan also suffered a $25,000 fine for berating a replacement ref in his team's loss to the Bengals on Sunday. The prior week saw Denver's John Fox and assistant coach Jack Del Rio fined for incidents related to replacement officials as well.

Fans gave the league's real referees a standing ovation Thursday as they tipped their caps to the crowd at the start of the Thursday night Browns vs. Ravens game. The deal will still have to be ratified, but it looks like the referees will be getting plenty of improved benefits along with a hefty pay raise that will see their average salary increased to over $200,000 per year by the end of the term. It doesn't seem like the demands of the locked out officials were all that outrageous after the player lockout that threatened to wipe out last year's NFL season. While nobody could have predicted how bad the replacement situation would turn out, the powers that be in the NFL should have realized the cost of starting the season without the best possible referees would be much worse than giving in to the union's demands.

Though getting the right personnel back on the field to call games is key to saving the rest of the season, the already tainted records of some teams will never change. It may be the first season where the Super Bowl winner will deserve an asterisk next to their team's entry into the history books. 
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