NFL making a mistake entrusting games to replacement officials

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I am starting to wonder how the NFL would fare with a replacement commissioner. Sure, we'd miss Roger Goodell's charm and good looks, but who buys a ticket to watch the commissioner? Cut him loose, bank his salary and find a guy on the street to wear nice suits and look worried about concussions.

I don't actually believe that. Goodell is making millions for a reason -- in many ways, he has done an excellent job running the NFL. But finding a replacement commissioner would be the Roger Goodell approach to Roger Goodell. It is precisely how he has handled this referee lockout. And it's been a debacle.

If you watched the Monday Night Football game between the Broncos and Falcons, you saw replacement refs who seemed to be working from their own top-secret rule book. You saw defensive pass interference that was not interference or even particularly defensive. You saw holding that was not holding, unless the offensive lineman had a third arm that only the refs could see.

Even the best refs blow calls, but this was different. The crew seemed to have no idea what it was doing. ESPN's Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico were in a tough spot -- their broadcast is part of an enormous business partnership with the NFL, but they need to be honest with viewers. I thought they handled it perfectly. The refs were as much the story of the game as the Falcons outplaying the Broncos, and Gruden and Tirico acknowledged it.

This was the gamble that Goodell took when he decided to start the season with replacement refs -- and not just replacements, but low-level replacements. He could have ended this lockout weeks ago for roughly the amount of money that NFL executives spend on dry cleaning every year. Goodell played to win.

The real refs gambled, too. They bet on their own ability. They gambled that we would notice the difference. And we have.

It's true: Nobody pays to watch the refs. But people do pay to watch a well-officiated football game. There are thousands of people that NFL fans don't pay to watch: general managers, marketing folks, lawyers, league vice presidents, p.r. people, TV producers, and maybe even broadcasters. But all of them play a role in the league's success. They have value and are paid for that value. They contribute to the quality of the entertainment product, even if they are not entertainers themselves.

The same is true of game officials. One or two calls can swing a game, and one game can swing a season. The NFL can't tell us how important every game is, then turn around and act like saving a relative pittance is more important.

Goodell and his advisers made a tactical mistake: They assumed that refs are indeed replaceable. I'm speculating here, but I imagine they never saw the Monday night mess coming. I think they assumed that even if the replacement refs were not as good as the real ones, they at least would be competent enough.

These replacements know far more about football rules than you or I do. So if we see an obvious penalty, why don't they?

The answer is starting to trickle out. According to CBS, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said that a replacement ref told McCoy he was on his fantasy team. Also, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis intimidated a ref so much that the ref could barely speak. Keep in mind: McCoy's team won the game. He had no reason to be bitter. ESPN reported Sunday that another replacement ref was pulled from a Saints game because he was a rabid Saints fan.

Next week a replacement ref may throw a flag at Tom Brady, then throw a Sharpie and ask Brady to sign the flag.

We naturally assume the NFL pays its refs to enforce the rule book. Goodell may believe that too. But enforcing the rule book is just part of the job. The NFL pays its refs to have integrity, to have poise, and to ignore 80,000 screaming fans and 15 million people watching on television. The NFL pays its refs not to be intimidated by Ray Lewis or James Harrison. The best refs know they are the best, and they have been the best for years. They don't care how many commercials Peyton Manning does.

The league may have figured that the replacement refs would get better as they got more experience. In fact, the opposite is just as likely to happen: The more mistakes they make, the more they realize they are flailing around in deep waters and can't find the shore. Panic sets in and makes them even worse than they already are. Most of these refs came from low-level college leagues; they aren't even used to the attention they would get in the SEC or Big Ten. Now they are suddenly in the NFL. Of course they're overwhelmed.

The two quarterbacks in Monday night's game provide a window into why the league needs its real refs. Dozens of quarterbacks have come into the league in the last 15 years. If you put them each in an empty gym and asked them to go through 30 drills, Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan might not stand out. Others had better pure physical skills. But being an NFL quarterback is not just about physical skills. An NFL quarterback must study voraciously, read defenses quickly, check down to second and third options when it's appropriate, be comfortable on the big stage and with the media, recover from failure, bond with teammates and do 100 other things besides throw from Point A to Point B. That is why Manning and Ryan are stars and some very talented players are out of the league.

The best NFL refs are not entertainers. But they must handle the attention and challenges of working in one of the country's biggest entertainment industries. And that is why the NFL needs them.