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In the very first exhibition game of 2012, referee Craig Ochoa announced that New Orleans won the coin toss. Except Arizona did. He immediately made the correction.

Buffalo fans booed when a punt by the Bills was downed at the 4-yard line and the back judge nevertheless ruled the play a touchback. Coach Chan Gailey challenged, and the spot was changed.

In Denver, officials misinterpreted Broncos coach John Fox’s attempt to challenge the spot of the ball after the 49ers recovered their own fumble. Fox was actually assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for challenging the recovery before an NFL rep talked with the crew for several minutes on the sideline. The flag was picked up without explanation. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh was hollering for the penalty. The refs, at least temporarily, bought his argument.

Playing at Minnesota, San Diego coach Norv Turner had to throw two challenge flags after turnovers forced by his team were disallowed on the field but contradicted by video replays.

Aiello said the league “cast a wide net and invited applications from experienced college football officials at all levels.” Ochoa’s crew at the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 6 included those with experience in the Arena League, the major college conferences and the NCAA Division II and Division III levels. Ochoa previously worked in the Big Ten _ and, yes, the women’s Lingerie Football League.

So they know the sport, and they care enough about the profession to put themselves through the gauntlet that is a typical NFL game.

“My concern is that the replacement referees get too cautious. In other words, the easiest way for them to disappear is to keep the flag in their pocket,” said NBC television analyst Cris Collinsworth, a former receiver with the Bengals. “I think that even the players are starting to get a little sense of that right now, that maybe they can push the envelope just a little bit more than what they’ve done in the past. And if that’s the case, then maybe we get players who get a little more aggressive than we would’ve seen otherwise.”

In 2011 with the regular officials, an average of 13 penalties for 109 yards was issued per preseason game. That number entering the finales last Thursday was up only slightly for 2012, an average of 13.4 penalties for 117.7 yards per exhibition game, according to research by STATS LLC.

Teams are under orders not to criticize the officiating. Thus, much of the August analysis has been couched in diplomacy.

“They’re trying their hearts out,” Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said.

Said St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher: “Even in games where you have your regular officials there are going to be penalties that are missed, OK?”

Quipped Chicago coach Lovie Smith: “We complain. It doesn’t matter who’s over there.”

Players have been more outspoken. Bears kicker Robbie Gould called the replacement refs “clueless” on Twitter and rhetorically asked the NFL when it stopped “caring about the integrity of the game.”

Minnesota quarterback Sage Rosenfels tweeted about “watching lowlights” from the “overmatched” officials in preseason games and predicted a “PR mess” for the league if the regulars aren’t returned.

“We’re fortunate because we can look at the big screen and see the replays, but it’s tough for them,” Indianapolis safety Antoine Bethea said.

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