When the NFL's regular crews of referees mercifully get back to work, starting Thursday night in Baltimore, let's hope they're ready for their close-up. Because this is going to be the closest close-up the league's game officials have ever experienced.
The scrutiny from fans and the media is going to be immediate and played out in the highest of high definition. After the full-on debacle of the replacement ref experiment -- which blew up in the NFL's collective face many times over -- any mistake made by the regular refs will be magnified like never before. In short, the pressure is on, and there won't be much margin for error.
It doesn't take extraordinary powers of logic and reason to understand why the spotlight will be so bright, the attention to every detail so intense. The return of the first-teamers will prompt what amounts to a backlash against the backlash, as it were. The shoddy performance of the replacement refs drew so much withering fire, and became such a lightning rod for criticism that the inclination of many will be to hold the regular refs to some unattainable expectation of perfection. As if it's a matter of simple fairness, like networks giving equal time to both major political parties in an election season.
That completely misses the point of what the NFL's latest ugly and messy lockout should have taught us: The regular refs obviously are not free from making mistakes, but they're pretty darn good at their jobs, and their absence has illustrated just how ridiculously complicated it is to efficiently officiate an NFL game. They say you only miss what you had once it's gone, and football fans these past three weeks have painfully learned the meaning of that axiom.
Yes, the real refs will still make some gaffes from time to time. The human element will always be part of the equation. But there won't be the series of egregious errors on rules, the marking of penalties, timeouts, replay challenges and the spotting of the ball that we've been subjected to so far in the NFL's 2012 regular season. Games won't routinely extend to the range of three and a half hours any more, and there will be a smoother, crisper feel in terms of the pace of action. The execution and mechanics of officiating games has been woefully lacking with the replacement refs, and the command and control needed to maintain on-field authority was growing worse by the week.
People who have been saying -- and my Twitter feed has featured plenty of them -- there will be no difference between the regular refs and the replacement refs, because they all make mistakes, are in desperate need of a dose of perspective. Their ratios for what constitutes success are all out of whack. Claiming that the regular refs are just as fallible because Phil Luckett blew a coin toss 14 years ago on Thanksgiving, or Ed Hochuli once cost the Chargers a game with an early whistle is like comparing a house fire in Poughkeepsie to the torching of Atlanta. They both involved some flames and smoke, but one mess took a few days to clean up and the other a few years.
For at least the 47th time, this bears repeating: Sticking up for the replacement refs and the job they were trying their best to do is completely understandable. They were not at fault in this embarrassing saga, unless you blame them for going against the referees union and taking the temporary NFL gigs in the first place. If you believe they deserve the "scab'' label, nothing anyone says likely will convince you otherwise.
But the reality is they were nowhere near ready for the stage they were thrust upon. Not all of them were terribly overmatched, but plenty of them were. And it clearly showed, in numerous ways. But feeling sympathy for the plight of the replacement refs and the intense scrutiny they were subjected to doesn't change the fact that they lacked the years of experience and the training required to handle the assignment of officiating at the NFL level. They were miscast by the league, and both the NFL and the replacement refs paid a price for that misjudgment -- as did the players, coaches and fans of the game, all of whom had no say in the decision to use the substitutes to begin with.
Sure, there's going to be more second-guessing and debate surrounding the calls and judgments of the regular refs for a while partly because officiating is a front-burner topic at the moment. That's where our attention has been focused the past three weeks -- and who's responsible for that? -- and that's where the 24/7 news cycle has been drawing its fresh oxygen. But that will fade, because our attention spans are stupefyingly short these days and a state of crisis always recedes in time. In a few weeks, we'll start to forget exactly how the simultaneous possession rule changes in the end zone compared to the rest of the field, and go back to wondering why Ed Hochuli seems to be so in love with camera time.
The good news is, thanks to the refs lockout, the NFL's players, coaches and fans now know the real score. The game's regular officials may be flawed in the way we all are, but they're not failures. They're as good as it gets at their chosen profession, and they're not easily replaced.
So go ahead and pay extra close attention to their every move, and dissect their every call, starting with tonight's Browns at Ravens game in Baltimore. They may be rusty from inaction, and trying to make up for a missed preseason, but they'll be welcomed as returning heroes by the players and coaches and fans who just got a glimpse of what life was like without them.
Upon further review, getting the first-team refs back on the field was absolutely the right call.