Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Profession, Professionalism Hamper Replacements

They're not professionals, and they do not know the profession.

In the end, that's why the NFL's experiment with replacement officials will probably end sooner rather than later. It's really not so much a matter of competency as creating compelling and efficient entertainment.

From afar it seems the replacement officials believe they're just working football games. Aside from the fact that they're doing that inefficiently -- without confidence in their work and with just as little control of the game -- that's just part of the job.

They're also supposed to be keeping the games on time, running the clock for individual, sports-themed TV shows that should fit in a three-hour broadcast window.

Never mind the gaffes (although they have not been as glaring as some anticipated), it's the time-of-game problem -- a function of the officials' indecision -- that might be the biggest strike against them through two weeks of the season.

Competitors and critics who argue about missed calls carry some weight, but not as much as commercial partners and fans.

After an opening week without major problems, the second week of the NFL season exposed some expected problems with the replacement officials. Most notably, though, it has not been things like an incorrect pass interference call (Jets-Steelers), a missed intentional grounding call (Ravens-Eagles) or even poor clock management (Browns-Bengals) that have cost officials -- as well as the league itself and team owners who remain united on keeping the old officials out of work -- the most credibility.

Eventually a mistaken call might decide a game, but that has not happened so far. And critics who argue that some innocuous call early in a game might already have reshaped a game this season are simply silly. Especially because the same could and does happen with the league's regular officials.

Even those who point to the replacements' mistakes are doing so in a somewhat disingenuous manner. What regular officials do best, because they know the job and because they have worked together more regularly, is keep games moving.

It's not that the regular refs are mistake free, or are somehow they only people on the plant capable of working the games. No, with them it's simply that play rarely slows. Again, that's not necessarily a good thing, but it is the accepted thing. And the replacements' inability to keep the show moving along matters.

The NFL built its success by making games TV shows that reliably fit into broadcast schedules. Games aired at 1 and 4 p.m. Sundays, and then again Monday nights. Of course, additions to the schedule include in recent years Sunday and Thursday nights. This year, the NFL pushed back late-afternoon start times to 4:25 p.m. Sunday.

If the replacements have any hope of a better third week of the season, they need to do their on-field work competently and keep the clock moving consistently. That means more control of the teams, more decisiveness when making calls and simply more efficiency.

It sounds simple, but it will not be easy. Expectations are not high for the replacement officials, but competency and a more speedy approach would go a long way toward making things better.

Team owners and representatives from the officials union will eventually find a common ground, a compromise that works for both parties. Just how soon that happens might be determined in large part by what happens in the third week of the season -- and how the officials do will play out on TV, conveniently for everyone to see, beginning Thursday night.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Replacement Refs Fare Well in TV Spotlight

Yes, the NFL trotted out its best-possible crew of replacement officials for the season-opening Cowboys-Giants game on Wednesday night. And, yes, it's just one game with the backup officials at the start of a season that almost assuredly will end with the league's regular referees returning at some point.

Still, the backup group did well -- almost to the chagrin of NBC Sports, which covered the game and seemed poised to point out any errors that happened.

With 17 penalties in the game (nine in the first half and none in the third quarter before a flag frenzy in the final frame), the refs really missed only one call -- the first one of the game when a block in the back was called clipping. Ultimately, the difference because of that call was about three yards. It was nothing major, and certainly nothing that impacted the outcome.

Before Week 1 of the NFL season concludes Sunday night, the replacement officials will make bad calls. And they might even cost some team a game as a result. But the league has apparently decided it can deal with that outcome, as it maintains a tough stance in labor negotiations with the regular refs.

What will be most interesting during the process is now NFL TV partners decide to deal with the topic.

Unfortunately for the replacement refs, if the NBC approach is any indication, the networks will not hesitate to point out mistakes or take a derisive or dismissive view of the refs' work. Conversely, any criticism of the league's stance might be surprising.

On two separate occasions Wednesday night, NBC play-by-play man Al Michaels noted that Joe Core, head referee for the game, was a middle school teacher and athletic director from Boise, Idaho. It's not clear whether that was context or some sort of condemnation -- as if the regular refs themselves are not part-time employees (be they attorneys, school teachers, whatever).

Sure, those regular refs invest hundreds of hours in their work during the season with meetings and video sessions, but to make an argument that the handful of existing crews are the only people on the planet who can work NFL games just seems silly. Replacement refs will struggle with the speed of the game and rules, but many do bring years of football experience to the job. With time, they could be good.

Again, it's hard to image that they'll get that time to develop, and it's not clear the league can afford (at least figuratively) for them to get on-the-job training.

What the replacement refs do not deserve, though, is to become a point of contention for TV or radio broadcast teams. They've been put in a difficult position, and the league and regular referees have a bigger stake in what's let to the replacement refs stepping on the field. Also, for broadcasters to assume or insinuate that regular refs are regularly prefect would be incorrect. Fans of every NFL team and most pro football fans in general can probably cite numerous instances when the regular refs made big mistakes in the past.

If the replacement teams can generally perform anywhere near the level of the season-opening crew, the NFL will be quite happy. And most fans will not notice much of a difference.

What fans might notice are:
1) more discussions among officiating crews,  as they learn to work with each other and strive to get calls correct;
2) maybe a few fewer penalties per game as officials avoid calling attention to themselves or making mistakes by making fewer calls; and
3) perhaps an inconsistent approach to the league's most arbitrary rule -- when a player is/is not tackled in or out of bounds near the sideline in order to keep the clock running and keep the game (and the NFL show in general) on schedule for its broadcast window. With the impact of that rule and more discussion, the length of NFL games could be impacted slightly and the league always worries about time of game because it knows it has stadiums full of fans but more importantly it's producing a series of weekly TV shows.