The Replacements: A Defense of Replacement Officials

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Originally published in September 21, 2012 as part of Rambling On’s original Sports Ramble series.

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It’s popular to talk trash about the replacement officials in the NFL. Keeping in mind that I’m not the sort of guy who takes the other side just to get a rise out of people, I find it completely necessary to stick up for the replacement officials.

There are many bad calls each week in the NFL, even with the regular officials. I have never seen a football game with great officiating. While it is human to err the amount of mistakes regular referees make, and the games that they change the end result on, are many. For example, last year when the Vikings played the Lions Joe Webb blatantly got tackled by his facemask as the Vikings were threatening to score on the last play of the game and there was no call.

I only remember that one vividly because I was a Vikings fan at the time. But any person who has watched football…well, ever, knows that every game in NFL history has been marred by officiating in some way, some games more blatantly (and with more disastrous results) than others.

Bad officiating has marred many important games – even football’s most important game, the Super Bowl. In 2010 the NFL admitted that referees missed calls in both the AFC and NFC championship games. The most shocking part about these blown calls is that there were multiple late hit and rouging penalties that weren’t called (this was the year that New Orleans embarrassed the NFL and themselves by participating in what is now called bountygate).

This point is poignant because there are a lot of people who are saying that the replacement referees are somehow endangering the safety of the players. Well, the regular referees have done a good job of that in the past themselves – just ask Brett Favre.

As if AFC and NFC championship games weren’t bad enough to ruin, officials have gone on record admitting that their blown calls have effected the outcome of a Super Bowl. In 2006 the Seattle Seahawks had their only Super Bowl appearance marred by officiating that was so poor, and so slanted against the Seahawks, that officials from the game have admitted that they’ve lost sleep over it. I especially remember that Super Bowl because from the start I had a feeling that the referees would try to hand the game to the Steelers so Jerome Bettis could retire with a Super Bowl ring (stories about it were all over leading up to the game).

I know that highlighting a few poorly officiated games and blown calls doesn’t conclusively prove that regular NFL officials are awful. They aren’t. They often do an adequate job. But the regular referres aren’t perfect; as a matter of fact, they were far from perfect, and the replacement officials are doing just as good, if not better, than they were. If you still don’t believe me, read the brilliant Wall Street Journal audit of the replacement officials.

There have been complaints that the replacements have caused games to go longer; indeed, the WSJ article notes that games have increased in time by about 6 minutes per game, or a measly 1.5 minutes per quarter. This can be explained partially by the increase in booth reviews because coaches don’t trust the replacements (though the WSJ study shows that the calls made on the field are usually right).

The larger reason games are lasting longer, though, is because of all the time wasted by coaches and players berating the replacement officials. More often than not this tactic is simply a sad attempt to try and bully the replacements and throw them off. The griping that coaches and players do off the field is usually just sour grapes. Close to home Jared Allen and Percy Harvin have both complained about what they thought were blown calls that actually weren’t, but this is going on all over the league, both during games and after.

The most annoying part about this entire situation, by far, is the constant complaining by the players, coaches, and fans over something that really isn’t an issue at all. The replacement referees are doing the best they can and if you look at the numbers – as they say, numbers never lie – you’ll see that they’re actually doing a fine job. The main point is this: in every football game there are blown calls, replacement officials or not, and sometimes they impact even the outcome of the game. The only reason people are noticing and harping on replacement officials is because they’re new and it’s a story.

Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He is also a contributor for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik’s music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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