The NFL is on track to have some new faces on the field this season, greener than even this year's group of draft picks. Replacement referees are all set to start calling games, starting on Sunday with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Replacement refs, or scabs if you want to be a little more partisan about it, should make things more, um, interesting and possibly more dangerous.
The replacement referees are taken from the ranks of high school officials, the smaller college divisions and the CFL. A group of replacement refs were in camp on Thursday with the St. Louis Rams, getting a crash course in the finer points of the NFL game.
"Yes officials will typically come out for three days," Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said. "They'll do a presentation on the rule changes and then they usually work practice for three days. So they'll be with us Friday and Saturday. It's really good for them. This group's been working really hard in clinics and trying to get caught up. I visited with them a little bit inside and it's a two way street. It helps us and it helps them."
The NFL locked out the referees in June when their collective bargaining agreement expired. Progress in negotiations is slow, if you can even call it progress.
Getting caught up is the key. The NFL's regular officials go through a rigorous, year-round program to stay on top of the rule book and get brushed up on player safety, and the safety of the players is a very legitimate concern as the league faces lawsuits and a long list of questions over the issue.
"There is a great deal of atmosphere control," explained veteran NFL referee and past NFLRA president Ed Hochuli on a July 18 conference call. "Players know who we are. They're going to see how far they can push it, going to see how much they can get away with."
Referees are a first line of defense in injury prevention, making sure the chippy play stays within the bounds of what's legal and what is not.
The quality of the competition is also at issue with replacement referees on the field, the integrity of the game ... the same justification the league used for doling out punishments in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal (and rightfully so). Fans love to complain about the mistakes officials make, and one of the most frustrating things as a far is to see a missed call change the outcome of a game. That could be a more regular thing with replacement refs.
"The NFL would never put more than one rookie official on a crew," NFLARA president Scott Green said in discussing the difficulty of the job. "[Using replacements] has got to be pretty unsettling to players and coaches, not to mention fans. The folks that are going to be on the field are not of NFL quality."
The NFL says otherwise, standing behind the replacement referees' ability to officiate the professional game.
"That's why we've been training them for the last two months and why they're on the field now, is to make sure they're prepared, they understand the rules," Roger Goodell told ESPN on Wednesday.
Fans will get the chance to decide for themselves on Sunday whether or not the replacement refs are up to the task.