NFL football returns on Sunday night when the preseason schedule kicks off with the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. The year's game features the Arizona Cardinals taking on the New Orleans Saints, marking the return of a one-year hiatus after last year's game was nixed because of the lockout and labor dispute between the NFL and the NFLPA. Labor troubles and another lockout hover over this year's Hall of Fame Game as well.
This time the referees are locked out as the league and the NFL Referees Association square off over a labor deal. With progress between the two sides somewhere between minimal and nothing, the league is bringing in a battalion of replacement referees culled from the ranks of Division II & III college football, the CFL and even high schools. The new faces calling the games has more than a few players, coaches, fans, pundits and others concerned about the quality of play on the field and even player safety.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers veteran tight end Dallas Clark was one of several to express his feelings about the replacement refs. When asked whether or not he was concerned about the new officials, Clark told USA Today:
"Absolutely. ... It's a fast game and that's why you see your officials that have been around for 20 (years), the reason they're good is because they've been doing it for that long. ... That's one of those things that you never want to say that refs win or lose games or things like that. But in a situation like that, who knows what could happen with certain situations of a game that they might not handle it correctly."
Clark's statement echoed the NFLRA's criticism over the replacement refs. The referees union points to the extensive year-round training referees receive and the significant differences between the rules of the professional games versus other football leagues where the replacements come from.
"The NFL would never put more than one rookie official on a crew," NFLRA president Scott Green said recently. "[Using replacements] has got to be pretty unsettling to players and coaches, not to mention fans. The folks that are going to be on the field are not of NFL quality."
Referees also warned of the threats to player safety and the overall competitiveness of the game. Veteran ref Ed Hochuli, a past NFLRA president, warned of player taking advantage of the untrained eyes.
"There is a great deal of atmosphere control. Players know who we are. They're going to see how far they can push it, going to see how much they can get away with."
On the other side, the NFL contends that the replacements will be just fine following two months of training. As part of that training, replacement refs were at team practices last week. Officiated practices are a normal part of training camp as the league sends in the referees as part of their own preparation for the season.
Reviews out of practices for the replacement refs were not good.
"Quit blowing your whistle! We're trying to get work done! ... Stop! These guys (players) know what they're doing!"
Others have complained that the replacement refs have missed important calls that could change the outcome of a game or help keep players safe. Chicago Bears offensive lineman Roberto Garza admitted to trying to take additional leeway in the trenches with the less experienced eyes watching the game.
Some have been more pointed in their criticism of the refs.
So what can fans expect from the replacement referees on the field Sunday night?
The last time replacement referees called a game was in 2001, when they threw half the number of flags as the regular crews, according to the NFLRA. Some may be relieved to see the refs keeping their flags in their pocket, at least until it swings the outcome of a game.
Video review has expanded substantially since 2001, which removes some of the danger of refs missing a key call, but the video booth can only help so much. Besides, the replay officials will be replacements as well.
Just as replay rules have expanded, so have the stipulations governing more complex matters on the field such as pass interference, crackback blocking, tackling and more. Those areas could be especially dicey since the rules have been altered as the league looks to expand safety measures for players. The NFL has also placed a heavier burden on referees in recent years in preventing and spotting injuries, particularly concussions. An injury to a star player in a game replacement refs let get out of control would likely be a more bitter pill for fans to swallow than a blown call on a scoring play.
Preseason football usually fails to elicit more than a shrug from even the most passionate fans. That could change on Sunday night when the world gets its first look at how rookie refs could impact the season ahead.