NFL Nation: Three Stooges

For a number of reasons, but mostly because of the sheer volume of news during training camps, the state of NFL officiating hasn't spurred widespread alarm. I imagine that will change as soon as we're done with this third week of the preseason, after which teams usually look beyond the fourth and final week and set their focus squarely on the regular season.

As you know, replacements have been working preseason games because the NFL has locked out its permanent officials in a labor dispute. Major mistakes have occurred weekly, and both games Thursday night featured fundamental problems with rule interpretation.

[+] EnlargeReplacement officials
Joe Howell/AP PhotoSubstitute officials Robert Dalton (22) and Anthony Stroman confer in the fourth quarter of Thursday's Cardinals-Titans preseason game.
At least one NFC North player began speaking out as a result. After watching the Arizona Cardinals-Tennessee Titans game on ESPN, Chicago Bears place-kicker Robbie Gould -- who is also the team's player representative -- tweeted: "Watching the coaches get upset on @espn because the refs [are] clueless @nfl when did you stop caring about the integrity of the game. …I understand there is a fine line in negotiations To get the refs back on the field. But I hope both sides can reach a deal soon."

Among the calls Gould was referring to: Referees mistakenly believed that a holding penalty against the Cardinals should offset a penalty for 12 men on the field against the Titans. According to NFL rules, the 12-man penalty should override a holding penalty, meaning only the Titans should have been penalized on the play. Afterwards, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt ranted on the sideline to whomever would listen.

In addition, Titans coach Mike Munchak said after the game that there had been "some confusion" on timeouts before halftime. According to my AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky, Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray walked away from an argument with replacement officials and called them "The Three Stooges" on the field.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said replacement officials didn't fully understand the rule protecting defenseless receivers when they called safety Taylor Mays for a 15-yard penalty after hitting Green Bay Packers tight end Tom Crabtree.

Here's what Lewis told reporters: "It was exactly shoulder-to-shoulder. Unfortunately, the guy that made the call’s explanation was not correct. It's one of those things. They are getting better. Hopefully, it will get closer and closer to what we need. His understanding was that the player was a defenseless receiver. He was, but you are allowed to hit a defenseless receiver shoulder-to-shoulder. There is no such thing as a defenseless player unless he is hit in the head with your head. It was a misinterpretation of the rule. I know they are working hard. The league is working hard to get this stuff corrected. They are working overtime on it actually. It'll get better and better."

The concern, however, is that these officials don't have much time to improve before the start of the regular season. Most of us have assumed that the NFL and its permanent officials will, under the pressure of the regular-season deadline, come to an agreement soon. If not, however, there is a strong likelihood that a regular-season game in Week 1 will be impacted not by a judgment call -- which happens every week of every season -- but by an official who either doesn't know all of the NFL's rules or misapplies them.

We have come to accept debatable calls for, say, pass interference or whether a player had two feet in bounds after making a catch. But losing track of timeouts? Not knowing how to apply the 12-men-on-the-field rule? Not demonstrating full knowledge of what constitutes a defenseless receiver? That's scary.

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