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.

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