- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Friends, football fans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to praise the NFL’s replacement officials, not bury them. I compliment them for accepting the challenge and allowing the games to continue. I congratulate them for reaching the pinnacle of football officiating, notwithstanding the unfortunate route. I commend them for doing their absolute best in an exceedingly difficult and trying situation.

Let’s hear it for the replacement refs: Hip hip now go away!

I thank them for their service, but here’s hoping we never see them again. At least not until they’ve improved to the point where they’re actually ready for the NFL under non-lockout circumstances.

They clearly are overwhelmed with their task, understandably so. Even with years of experience at lower levels of football, they’re ill-prepared to handle the world’s biggest, strongest and fastest players on national TV. There’s a reason these refs weren’t in the NFL, and it shows.

It’s one thing to slide a rookie ref in with veteran officials, who can nurture and shepherd the newbie. That’s the way to break-in first-timers.

But when the entire crew is composed of greenhorns, the refs are like sheep trying to police dueling wolf packs. It’s not going to be pretty, as evidenced by Week 2.

Viewers of the Redskins-Rams game witnessed plenty of extracurricular activity between snaps, as did fans who saw the Ravens-Eagles game. There were reports of chippier-than-usual play in other regionally-televised games as well. But everyone had an opportunity to watch the Broncos-Falcons game, which had the stage to itself Monday night.

Whatever it thought about replacement refs beforehand, the NFL had to realize they’re lacking once the game ended, mercifully, nearly four hours later.

The refs were disrespected, disregarded and disparaged. A scrum after Denver’s Knowshon Moreno fumbled led to a six-minute delay as players pushed and shoved well after the whistle. Broncos tackle Orlando Franklin even bumped an official who was trying to restore order, brushing him aside like a bothersome fly.

Players and coaches mulled on the field and got in each other’s faces while the hapless refs watched wide-eyed, hopelessly and helplessly. The delay, along with several others, led to an interminable first quarter that took an hour to complete.

Blown calls might get more attention but they’re part of the game anyway, even with the regular refs. Granted, the replacements have produced an unprecedented comedy of errors, struggling with simple tasks such as interpreting the rules, spotting the ball, marking penalty yardage, keeping track of timeouts, etc.

But replacements aren’t doing the most damage with their game management.

It’s their player management, which is straining the game’s integrity.

We’re seeing too many cheap shots, illegal blows and late hits, too many semi-rumbles and near-brawls, as players push the limit and let emotion get the best of them. “I’ve never been in a situation where you felt there was going to be an explosion on the field and you’re hoping that doesn’t happen,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said after Sunday’s loss. “I thought it was very close to losing control.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that players aren’t controlling themselves. We see the same dynamic in classrooms when a substitute teacher shows up, and in offices when the bosses are out of town. Replacement refs can’t provide the firm, steady hand that’s necessary to keep order, because they know they don’t belong.

They can’t take command because they’re out of their element.

They don’t know the players. They don’t know the coaches. They don’t know the NFL rule book, let along the pro game’s nuances. All of which makes them hesitant, indecisive and tentative — qualities that spell doom for anyone on an NFL field.

So now a dangerous game is more dangerous, with the action bordering on anarchy at times. Safety issues are more problematic, as a sense of lawlessness unleashes the players’ sense of invincibility. Their never-ending attempt to instill fear and intimidate the opponent — while trying to prove themselves impervious to such — goes up a notch from play to play and quarter to quarter.

At this rate, it won’t be long before there’s an ugly scene that puts semipro football to shame. Or someone gets seriously hurt. Or both.

The NFL gave the replacements a vote of confidence Monday morning, issuing a statement that said they’re “performing admirably.” However, our eyes know better than to believe that assessment.

But I applaud the replacements’ effort. I don’t want to bury them. Just send them back where they came from.

It’s time for the regulars to return.