Few things are certain in life: death and taxes — and football officials will make errors.
If pass interference isn’t called, it is in most cases a judgment call and not a problem, so long as it is applied consistently. If encroachment is called instead of a false start, that is a 10-yard swing for the offense, but not one that profoundly alters the result of the game. These calls happen on any given Sunday, whether the flag belongs to a 20-year veteran in NFL stripes or a babyface junior-college official promoted into the breach.
The NFL has been largely happy with their replacement officials, an odd collection of retired, fired, demoted, reassigned, and green recruits. The union referees are still locked out by the league, and no progress has been made to reach a collective bargaining agreement. While the league may be pleased with the performance of the replacements, the measure of the game is not whether there was a major error during the game, but how it is being managed.
When possible playoff contenders meet in Week 1 to potentially settle home-field advantage in the conference championship, you know there will be a duel to the finish. Division rivals who have kept the embers of redemption warm in the offseason are ready to clash helmets with wild abandon. Even mismatched teams can erupt into chaos as the underdog fights back to his superior foe. Not all games are epic battles, but all are certainly more challenging than what any replacement official witnessed in a Monmouth vs. Wagner game.
Jason Garrett's Cowboys came away with a huge victory in Week 1, despite any issues he may have had with the replacement officials.
An officiating crew must not be indecisive or slow and must work in concert to effectively manage the flow of the game. Week 1 was a test of what officials are going to call and not call. (I am sure that some of the master tacticians of the game are even studying game film of next week’s officials, trying to find out what they can get away with.) If pass interference is going to be called infrequently because of an out-of-position back judge, advantage: defense. If illegal contact is not being called on the interior lineman, advantage: offense. By the second quarter, each team is leveraging its advantages, and it can quickly spiral out of control.
The replacement officials are, largely, not anticipating the challenges of the NFL. When a play is over, make sure that a receiver and defensive back don’t get too close after the play. When a deep official needs to get into position before the snap, walk backwards and face in the direction of the ball, especially when a master of surprise like Peyton Manning is at the helm. When there is a crossing pattern, anticipate it happening and stay out of the way before the receiver even crosses the line of scrimmage.
The current system of game management involves a veteran game supervisor in the press box, able to relay information by Walkie-Talkie to an alternate official on matters except for judgment calls. While the overhead perspective is helpful, the replacement officials are left on the field vulnerable to the challenges of stronger, faster players and louder, more vulgar coaches. Can they make the quick, decisive call in this environment? Most times they can. When they can’t, the players, the coaches, and the fans begin to doubt whether the game is being adjudicated properly.
Confidence in the officiating is a cumulative measure, and while the regular officials are routinely chewed out, most fans find their confidence weathers the storm. But the longer the lockout extends, the more that confidence is exposed to the elements, and poor game management can quickly erode that away.
Ben Austro is the founder and editor of FootballZebras.com. Follow him on Twitter: @footballzebras
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