Fill-in refs raising concerns as NFL season looms

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Vikings punter Chris Kluwe pointed to the fine line between success and failure in this ultra-competitive league.

“Look at last year: The Giants, the eventual Super Bowl champions, they were one game out from not making the playoffs,” Kluwe said. “So if you get one bad call that takes a game the complete other way, the entire season’s different.”

The NFL and the NFL Referees Association, which covers more than 120 on-field officials, are at odds over salary, retirement benefits and operational issues. The NFL has said its offer includes annual pay increases that could earn an experienced official more than $200,000 annually by 2018. The NFLRA has disputed the value of the proposal, insisting it would ultimately reduce their compensation.

Part of the league’s plan is also to begin hiring some full-time officials. Currently, they’re all part-timers who have other jobs during the week.

The two sides met Saturday but came away with no agreement and no announced date to meet again.

On Sunday, the league sent teams a memo saying it upped its offer to the union and thought it was close to a deal, but the union said “there was no agreement … to do anything other than to meet on Saturday. Any claim that numbers were agreed to before Saturday is absolutely false.”

In a memo obtained by The Associated Press, the NFL said that on Saturday “the officials immediately did an about-face and made clear that they had no intention of settling within the agreed-upon parameters.”

So Week 1 in 2012 probably will be like Week 1 in 2001. That year, the NFL used replacements for the first week of the regular season before a contract was finalized.

NFL policy generally prohibits officials from speaking to the media, and the replacements are no exception. Little is known about what they’ve seen, heard and felt over the past month. But those who have lived it before have a good idea.

Tom Perrault, the supervisor of officials for the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, an NCAA Division III league, spent 40 years on the field refereeing games at all college levels including the Big Ten. As he worked his way up, he found the differences from division to division difficult to adjust to.

“Every transition for me was a big challenge. It took me three to five years before I really felt comfortable working with the speed and the size of those players,” Perrault said.

Plus, there’s the scrutiny that comes with the NFL game.

“Just the atmosphere and the intensity and the electricity of those stadiums, they’ve never experienced that before on that field while trying to concentrate and having the best athletes in the world playing football,” Perrault said.

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AP Football Writers Rob Maaddi, Arnie Stapleton and Barry Wilner, AP Sports Writers Tom Canavan, R.B. Fallstrom, Jon Krawczynski, Larry Lage, Michael Marot, and AP freelance writer Gene Chamberlain contributed to this report.

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