- Ian Begley, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As players and coaches around the NFL continue to express frustration with replacement referees, one former official blasted the league on Tuesday, saying commissioner Roger Goodell is devaluing officiating in the NFL and that the performance of replacement referees will deteriorate over time.
"It's obvious to me that (Goodell) just doesn't even care. Otherwise, how could they replace professionalism with unprofessionalism in a game that's so tough to work, even for the best officials in the land? How could he care about it?," Jerry Markbreit, who refereed 23 NFL seasons before retiring in 1998, said Tuesday on ESPN 98.7 FM's "The Mike Lupica Show."
Some have expressed confidence that replacement referees will improve as the weeks go by. But Markbreit doesn't see it that way.
"The management of the games gets tougher (in the coming weeks)," Markbreit said. "These guys have relied on competent, top-notch, terrific officials all these years. And now they have a bunch of amateurs out there and it's going to fall apart.
"It's not going to get better, as the commissioner said ... It's going to get worse."
Coaches and players have echoed Markbreit's sentiment in recent days, as replacement officials made several questionable calls in Week 2.
The NFL locked out the regular officials in June after their contract expired. Negotiations with the NFL Referees Association broke down several times during the summer, including just before the season, and the league is using replacements for the first time since 2001.
The results have been mixed. The refs made several high-profile gaffes on Sunday and Monday and one ref's credentials were called into question.
Just hours before kickoff Sunday, the NFL removed side judge Brian Stropolo from the New Orleans-Carolina game because it was discovered he's a Saints fan.
Stropolo will not be allowed to return as an official until the league completes a review of the circumstances that dictated the action. He had displayed his unabashed passion as a longtime Saints fan on his Facebook page, which has since been disabled. He also posted Sunday's game assignment, a specific violation of league policy for its officials.
"We are reviewing Mr. Stropolo's status and pending completion of that review, he will not be serving as an on-field game official," said Greg Aiello, the league's senior vice president of communications.
Then came the on-field problems.
In Philadelphia's 24-23 win over Baltimore, two game-altering calls left quarterback Joe Flacco and linebacker Ray Lewis fuming, though it appeared on replay that both calls were accurate. That didn't make them any less controversial.
Flacco's scoring pass to receiver Jacoby Jones in the fourth quarter was called back because of offensive pass interference. The official who made the call didn't throw the yellow flag, though he immediately signaled a penalty.
"I might sound like a little bit of a baby here," Flacco said, "but for them to make that call, I think, was a little crazy."
There was confusion later during Philadelphia's go-ahead drive. First, the two-minute warning occurred twice. Then, quarterback Michael Vick's forward pass was called a fumble inside the Ravens' 5-yard line. It was ruled incomplete after a replay, and Vick scored on the next play after a few anxious moments.
"It's extra stress when you have to sit there and wait," Vick said. "The one thing you don't want to do, you don't want to put the game in the officials' hands."
Eagles running back LeSean McCoy said in an interview with SportsRadio 94 WIP in Philadelphia that a ref told him that he needed him for his fantasy football team.
"I'll be honest, they're like fans," McCoy said of the replacement referees. "One of the refs was talking about his fantasy team like, 'McCoy, come on, I need you for my fantasy.' Ahhh, what?"
It's unknown if McCoy was serious. ESPN has reached out to the running back for clarification on whether the exchange actually happened.
Aiello told ProFootballTalk.com in an email that NFL officials are not permitted to play fantasy football. ESPN also has reached out to the NFL for comment on McCoy's remarks.
New York Giants safety Kenny Phillips added that officials missed a blatant pass interference call Sunday in the Giants' win over Tampa Bay.
"I saw in our game a guy walk Victor Cruz like a dog. He had his jersey the whole way up the field and they didn't call anything ... It was bad," Phillips said.
Markbreit, who refereed eight conference championship games and four Super Bowls, also bemoaned the slew of missed calls by replacement refs. He and others have said that the use of replacement referees is a sign the league doesn't care about the health of players.
"It's absolutely true," Markbreit said. "They just don't care about the inadequacy and unprofessionalism of these scab referees who are trying to do something that they don't have the ability to do. ... It just makes me sick to my stomach."
Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck is also concerned about player safety.
"I have seen pass interference -- and I am a defensive player -- at a high rate that hasn't been called. I have seen holding calls at a high rate," Tuck said on Tuesday. "You never know what is going to happen when you get a holding call and guys feel free that they can do that because the referees aren't seeing it. You get guys that (are) getting pulled down and get hamstring (injuries); you get all these different types of things that could happen and player safety becomes an issue.
"That is what I am worried about."
Added Kiwanuka: "I don't think you can levy tens of thousands of dollars, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines in a week against players talking about 'player safety this, player safety that,' and not have ... officials who can account for it. Because we're human at the end of the day and if you let people get away with stuff, they're going to continue to do it."
Tuck and Kiwanuka don't lay blame at the replacement referees for the current predicament -- Tuck places the blame on the NFL.
"I am more upset with the NFL for not handling this and taking care of this in due time, I guess. I think the replacement officials are doing their best in a very sticky situation for them," he said.
Added Kiwanuka: "I can't pick a side either way and say, 'One side is right, one side is wrong.' All I know is that we would all benefit from having the regular refs out there."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, however, downplayed the significance of the replacement refs. He believes players and coaches have always complained about referees calls, and this year is no different.
"You've got to remember that you've got all kinds of complaints at any time about officiating," Jones said Tuesday on KRLD-FM. "Did you happen to notice that the ones that were complaining the most, if it were from within, were the players and coaches on the losing teams? Hello. I don't even have to look at the games or the dates on the newspaper, just hand me one from 30 years ago and it'll be the same thing -- they're complaining about the officiating."
"I'd certainly like to see this thing resolved, but it does appear that we've got a long way to go."
Markbreit has served as the head trainer for NFL referees since his retirement in 1998. When the league asked him to train the replacement officials, he refused to do so and says he has been "fired" by the NFL.
He's been baffled at the league's decision to, in his words, "jeopardize the integrity of these games, the safety of these games and, in the process, belittle the job that the professional refs have done over the years, because of a contract dispute that amounts to a piddling amount of money."
Despite the public outcry, the league backed the replacement crews, a collection of small-college officials who have been studying NFL rules since the summer.
"Officiating is never perfect. The current officials have made great strides and are performing admirably under unprecedented scrutiny and great pressure," Aiello said in an email to The Associated Press. "As we do every season, we will work to improve officiating and are confident that the game officials will show continued improvement."
Reached for comment Tuesday, Aiello told ESPN in an email "that we are looking at how to improve officiating for the long term, and that is an important part of the negotiations with the NFLRA."
Markbreit would like to see a resolution as soon as possible.
"I wish this thing would end. But, apparently the league doesn't care about all of this horrible publicity."
Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
As players and coaches around the NFL express frustration with replacement refs, one former ref blasted the league, saying Roger Goodell is devaluing officiating in the NFL and that the performance of replacement referees will deteriorate over time.