When the NFL season opens exactly three months from today, it is entirely possible that replacement officials will be in place, after contract talks between the league and its officials broke down this week. In response, the NFL announced that it would begin hiring and training fill-in officials, so the 2012 schedule would not be impacted.
How much of an impact that will have on games sort of depends on your opinion of the current crop of NFL officials.
It's also true that, like an offensive lineman, you don't necessarily notice the officials until they commit a substantial mistake -- meaning that the majority of the time, they're doing a pretty decent job presiding over a sport played at an incredible rate of speed.
And therein lies the biggest challenge with going to replacement officials: How quickly and how well will they adjust to being on the NFL stage?
My dad has been a back judge at the high school level for years. A few years back, he jumped up to officiate some Division III college football games, and even in making that move, noticed a substantial change in the pace of play. It took some getting used to.
Now, imagine trying to learn on the fly at the highest level of competition. While the NFL contends that its backups "are professionals who officiate games at a high level and have backgrounds similar to current NFL officials,'' there's no league out there that can fully prepare an official for the big-league jump.
It's different when new officials break into the league, because they're teamed with experienced and veteran crews. Throwing an entire team of rookies into the fire is a different thing entirely.
Does that mean the league's product is going to fall apart if replacement officials are used? No, of course not. There may be a few more bad calls for fans to complain about, but the NFL has slowly moved toward fail-safes against poor officiating anyway. All scoring plays are automatically reviewed already and, starting this year, the replay booth will check every single turnover to see if it's legit.
There is not much to be done about most penalty (or non-penalty) calls, but the NFL's major momentum-swinging moments will be checked and double-checked.
The biggest complaint you could file against the replacement official move comes in terms of how it relates to the NFL's highly publicized stance on player safety. Be it concussion protocols or head-to-head contact penalties or the smackdown the Saints received over their bounty scandal, the league has gone out of its way to create the image that it's protecting its players.
On top of asking a new set of officials to learn the NFL rulebook and enforce it on the field, the league will also require those newcomers to keep its players safe. Remember, as of November 2011, officials are responsible for monitoring players for concussions, on top of their every-down duties.
All it would take is one serious injury resulting from an oversight by a replacement official to send the NFLPA up in arms.
One of the solutions proposed in the past to try to alleviate missed calls was for the NFL to hire its officials as full-time employees -- as things stand now, just about every one of them has a regular job on top of his work during the season. The use of replacement officials would take things a step in the other direction.
It's important to note that there is still plenty of time for all to be resolved, be it from one side caving or some sort of compromise being reached. Should it come to the use of replacement officials during the 2012 season, though, the NFL would have to cross its fingers that the resulting impact -- both on how the game is called and how the players are protected -- would be minimal.