Replacement officials taking heat
One official was pulled from duty because he's a fan. Another negated a touchdown without ever throwing a penalty flag. Several others had difficulty with basic rules.
Upon further review, the NFL's replacement officials came up short in Week 2.
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Coaches and players around the league are losing patience and speaking out against the fill-in officials following a slew of questionable calls in the games Sunday and Monday night.
Some players are even joking about dipping into their own pockets to settle the contract dispute and get the regular officials back on the field.
"I don't know what they're arguing about, but I got a couple of (million) on it, so let's try to make it work," Washington defensive back DeAngelo Hall said, kiddingly, on Monday. "I'm sure the locker room could put up some cash and try to help the cause out."
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.
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.
Replacement Refs Under 'Scope
The only major change in penalties over the first two weeks comes on defensive pass interference calls. In Weeks 1 and 2 this year, 43 were called, the most in the first two weeks of a season since 2003 (47).
Weeks 1 & 2 Defensive Pass Interference Penalties (last 5 seasons) 2012 43 2011 30 2010 24 2009 18 -- ESPN Stats & Information
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. It was ruled incomplete following 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.
Lewis, like many players around the league, has seen enough.
"The time is now," he said. "How much longer are we going to keep going through this whole process? I don't have the answer. I just know across the league teams and the league are being affected by it. It's not just this game, it's all across the league. And so if they want the league to have the same reputation it's always had, they'll address the problem. Get the regular referees in here and let the games play themselves out.
"We already have controversy enough with the regular refs calling the plays."
The officials missed a call on Denver's first touchdown, ruling that Demaryius Thomas was pushed out of bounds. The replay clearly showed he got both feet down, and the call was reversed after a review.
The Falcons' first score also was reversed, this time with the officials ruling, with help from a replay, that Michael Turner actually landed short of the goal line. He wound up scoring on the next play.
In the second half, the officials got mixed up on where to place the ball after a defensive holding penalty on Champ Bailey. The crowd booed while the officials conferred, finally moving it a few yards forward to the proper spot.
It was those sorts of delays that helped the game drag on for nearly 3½ hours.
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."
While some of the mistakes on Sunday were judgment calls -- such as a pass interference penalty on Pittsburgh defensive back Ike Taylor in which he appeared to miss a New York Jets receiver -- the more egregious errors appear to be misinterpretations of rules.
In St. Louis' 31-28 victory over Washington, Rams coach Jeff Fisher challenged a second-quarter fumble by running back Steven Jackson near the goal line and it was overturned. The Rams ended up kicking a field goal, which was the margin of victory.
The problem there was that a coach is not allowed to challenge a play when a turnover is ruled on the field. It should have been an automatic 15-yard penalty on Fisher. Also, if Fisher threw the red challenge flag before the replay official initiated the review, then a review is not allowed and the Redskins would have kept the ball.
"I just think that they're just so inconsistent that it definitely has an effect on the games," Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said. "You were hoping it would get better, but everybody is having to deal with it."
In the Cleveland-Cincinnati game, the clock continued to run after an incomplete pass by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the second quarter. A total of 29 seconds ticked off, and the Browns ended the half with the ball at their 29. Perhaps an extra half-minute could have helped the drive. The Bengals won 34-27.
"Missed calls & bad calls are going to happen," Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, an NFLPA executive council member, wrote on Twitter. "That's part of the deal & we can all live with it. But not knowing all the rules and major procedural errors (like allowing the clock to run after an incomplete pass) are completely unacceptable. Enough already."
The Colts were incorrectly told at the end of their game that accepting an offside penalty would start the clock. So, quarterback Andrew Luck spiked the ball to stop it and set up Adam Vinatieri's 53-yard field goal that gave Indianapolis a 23-20 win over Minnesota.
Feisty play was a common theme around the league, as well. Players are seemingly getting away with being more physical, especially after the whistle. Officials appear reluctant to call personal fouls, opting instead for offsetting unsportsmanlike penalties that won't dissuade guys from going after each other as much.
The officials singled out an offender in the final minutes at St. Louis. Washington receiver Josh Morgan reacted after being tackled -- and then shoved -- by Cortland Finnegan, tossing the ball at the Rams cornerback and drawing an unsportsmanlike penalty. That turned a potential game-tying 47-yard field goal into a 62-yard attempt, which Billy Cundiff missed short.
"I've never been a part of a game that was that chippy," Washington's Hall said. "Just so much extracurricular things going on after the play."
Philadelphia receiver Jason Avant predicted replacement officials would have trouble keeping players in line.
"When you go into a game, you know what things you can do to get away with, with these refs that we have," Avant said a few days before the season opener. "Guys are going to kind of cheat."
As a result, Avant and many of his peers are concerned about safety.
"If they're going to press player safety," Buffalo center Eric Wood said, "and they're going to have this multibillion-dollar industry, they should probably try to get something done to keep the product high."
In 2001, the lockout lasted for one week of the regular season before a settlement was reached. This was the second weekend the replacements were used, and the NFL has drawn up a five-week schedule for using them if the labor dispute is not resolved.
In Week 1, there was one major error, when the officials awarded Seattle an extra timeout in the final minutes of a game at Arizona. The Cardinals held on to win and the crew's referee admitted the mistake.
"I don't know if there's a newfound appreciation or anything like that, but those guys have been doing it for a long time and they put a lot of time and hard work into going out there and doing this and seeing those games," Flacco said about the regular officials. "It's not easy to be down there and be officiating games that are going full speed at this level, so that's my opinion of it.
"It's tough to just get thrown right in there and be perfect."
Information from ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen and The Associated Press was used in this report.
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