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NFL needs real refs back now

Letting overmatched replacement officials call regular-season games could be a disaster

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

7:39 PM EDT, August 27, 2012

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Upon further review, the state of NFL officiating is a joke.

Jerry Markbreit only wishes he could laugh about it.

"I watched highlights on the NFL Network last night,'' the retired NFL official with 36 years' experience said Monday. "I saw referees with their head down, their cap over their eyes making announcements. I watched their mechanics. Honest to God, it made me cry seeing it. This is the National Football League.''

Too many times during an unacceptable preseason for the men (and woman) in striped shirts, it has been hard to tell. Replacement officials have erred enough to conclude the integrity of the game will be compromised unless the NFL and NFL Referees Association agree on a new contract before the regular season opens Sept. 5.

It is one thing for a blown call in a Chargers-Cowboys exhibition game to cost the Cowboys a possession and likely points in a game they lost 28-20. It will resonate much more with NFL fans currently shrugging if a similar gaffe by overmatched officials costs their favorite team a regular-season victory — and perhaps a playoff spot.

Welcome to 2012, potentially the year of the asterisk in the NFL.

Figure it out, fellas. Consider your legacy, Commish. Roger Goodell's $9 billion enterprise pinching pennies with NFL officials smacks of hypocrisy from a league that has identified player safety as its No. 1 priority. A salary dispute that could be resolved if every NFL team paid $100,000 apiece unnecessarily risks injuries as much as outcomes.

For rules changes intended to protect players to work, they need to be enforced. To be enforced, they have to be identified. How can the NFL trust replacement refs to identify illegal hits they can't see? Replacement officials have adjusted to the NFL pace like someone driving in the Indianapolis 500 weeks after getting a learner's permit.

"It takes a qualified, good Division I official three or four years to get acclimated to the speed of the game in the NFL,'' said Markbreit, who lives in Skokie. "Now, you have seven guys who never have worked professional football and there's nobody to help them out there.''

The league wanted Markbreit's help. But he and eight fellow NFL officiating trainers, all non-union members, refused to work with replacement officials, so they were dismissed days after the June 3 lockout.

Markbreit anticipated a quick remedy given the NFLRA seeking what officials considered a reasonable 8 percent pay increase — top guys earn about $90,000 annually. The union says the NFL — the only major U.S. sports league still using part-time officials — offered a 2.85 percent raise despite NFL vice president Ray Anderson reportedly calling the proposed bumps from "5 to 11 percent."

What price, competency?

"At first I couldn't watch, but now I do because I see how inept they are,'' Markbreit said. "I know they're working their fannies off. But these people are not schooled in professional football. They don't know the rules. They can have supervisors on the sideline, they still can't officiate the game. The integrity of the game is everything.''

Call by call throughout August, it keeps disintegrating.

After a questionable pass-interference penalty against Bears cornerback Charles Tillman on the final play of the first quarter Friday night, officials incorrectly allowed the Giants to run an untimed play. The call so incensed mild-mannered Lovie Smith that his protestations caused players to be "taken aback,'' according to WBBM-AM 780.

Days before that blunder, Bears kicker Robbie Gould reflected growing player concerns by tweeting, "…the refs (are) clueless @nfl when did you stop caring about integrity of the game(?)''

The NFL cares about three-hour games, but who really expects those without a settlement? Markbreit recalled one replay review Sunday lasting five minutes. In Minnesota, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe concisely echoed a league consensus getting louder.

"Frankly," Kluwe tweeted, "it's kind of embarrassing."

Coaches Marvin Lewis and Jim Harbaugh have been the most outspoken to agree. Mockingly, Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray made "Three Stooges'' comparisons. Everybody in the league fears what seemingly everybody but those in the league office know: Disaster looms. Only a lack of confidence exceeds the officials' lack of competence, as Packers cornerback Charles Woodson noted.

"They haven't been very good," Woodson told USA Today. "Now, could they go through a season and get better? Sure. But there's going to be a lot of bad officiating until they catch up."

One bad officiating Sunday can ruin a team's season. More than one could harm the NFL's reputation.

"The commissioner said it would take a week for our guys to get ready for a game once they reach an agreement,'' Markbreit said. "Our guys could work tonight.''

A league in danger of losing something more important than money needed a resolution yesterday.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh