How uncomfortably odd but understandable NFL fans await the return of locked-out officials such as Ed Hochuli for the 2012 season with as much, if not more, anticipation than they felt for injured All-Pro players Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson.
Wednesday's "Today" show hinted at how desperately America wants order restored in the NFL and misses Hochuli, the man with massive biceps and an even bigger following. Its lead story updated viewers on the NFL's lockout of officials — ahead of news from the presidential race, comments from the Libyan president or details about the New York "Soccer Mom Madam."
Nobody threw a flag for journalistic encroachment. Everybody from your neighbors to President Barack Obama has expressed interest and disappointment in the lockout, which ended late Wednesday in time for this week's games. It never should have started.
Good thing it was settled before another player was hurt or another team was robbed.
With common sense prevailing, everyone fed up with the fiasco of replacement refs tainting the game immediately wins: fans, players, coaches, reporters, gamblers, the Packers. Only one guy loses, and it could be a while before Commissioner Roger Goodell recovers. The game will bounce back quicker than Goodell's reputation.
Forget any of the unknown details about the 21 new reserve officials and the referees' pension fund. What Goodell lost has nothing to do with money or terms. Legacies don't. For really the first time since he became commissioner in 2006, people outside the NFL Players Association found legitimate reasons to doubt his leadership. For the first time, Goodell has more in common with Gary Bettman than David Stern and sharp criticism came from beyond the rank and file.
Nobody denies how tricky it must be for Goodell to balance the interests of 32 owners, intent on breaking a union, with the good of our country's most popular sport. In many ways, a man at the mercy of so many billionaires with competing interests and egos cannot win. He represents owners who selected him and nobody else.
Still, Goodell had since June to figure out a reasonable solution to a problem that would cost each team a relative pittance of $100,000. When the commissioner of a $9 billion enterprise cannot lead his owners to see the wisdom of a compromise in three months, he makes it fair to question his judgment or effectiveness — or both.
Somebody in the room has to have the strength to stand up and tell these guys no. That used to be Goodell, a good man. What happened?
Even before the embarrassing stain the replacement refs left over the weekend, it was incongruous that Goodell could spend six years taking bold measures to preserve player safety and three weeks exposing them to unnecessary risks. The 121 officials with 1,500 years of combined experience have a hard enough time containing violence for Goodell to expect novices to control players looking to take advantage of the new refs' naivete.
But with due respect to Texans quarterback Matt Schaub's missing earlobe, the most damage done during 48 games' worth of NFL chaos came to what Goodell likes to call "the shield." Goodell made an impact cracking down on discipline in the name of the NFL shield. He invoked the sacred symbol when defending penalties in the Saints bounty scandal yet, six months later, jeopardized the league's integrity by entrusting Sundays to overmatched officials who quickly learned this wasn't Division II or the Lingerie League.
Don't blame the replacement refs. They simply weren't qualified for the job Goodell handed them. One Bears veteran recalled Wednesday the tentativeness two officials showed raising their arms to signal a field goal right down the middle.
Players noticed the lack of dialogue from officials compared with experienced refs who typically let offensive linemen and defensive backs know when they are coming close to a holding penalty. Players also described officials' body language screaming uncertainty and their awkwardness too obvious in a game too fast for them.
Allowing the mockery to continue cost the Packers a victory over the Seahawks. If the Bears win the NFC North by one game over the Packers — will the T-shirts require an asterisk: "2012 Division Champs*"? — Goodell deserves a playoff share. The Packers felt so strongly they had been wronged, guard T.J. Lang told WXYT-FM that teammates discussed taking a knee for every snap in the next game in protest.
The only thing worse than officials ruling the Seahawks' Golden Tate caught the touchdown pass that Packers safety M.D. Jennings clearly intercepted was the league's response. In an incomprehensibly weak statement, the tone-deaf NFL supported the decision not to overturn the call.
Somewhere, Hochuli never felt more in demand — and Goodell never seemed more out of touch.