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This Isn't NFL Football, But It's Close

Here, you can clearly see the referee in the background watching the ball carrier to properly ensure that no defender...oh, who are we kidding. He was looking at some cheerleader. (Photo by Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE)
Here, you can clearly see the referee in the background watching the ball carrier to properly ensure that no defender...oh, who are we kidding. He was looking at some cheerleader. (Photo by Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE)

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got til it's gone
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot

Joni Mitchell wasn't talking about the NFL, but she might as well have been. For those of us who saw NFL football as paradise, what we saw yesterday was different. And given the nature of football as a battle of inches, the borders of the battle have changed.

In week 2, we finally crossed the threshold from what could happen under the replacement refs to what did happen. The players started taking things in their own hands.

Yes, there were notable mistakes. In the Baltimore-Philly game, the referees stopped play for the two-minute warning near the end of the game...twice. There was the obvious incomplete pass as Vick's arm was coming forward that was initially ruled a fumble leaving Greg Gumbel somewhat speechless.

In the Rams-Redskins game...well, we know. There were missed calls, missed automatic replays, wrong calls, non-calls, collect was horrible.

Andrew Sharp was right this morning: nothing's changing from a business perspective. The league has the labor in place to provide an entertainment service, and we, as patrons, are enjoying that service more than ever, lack of labor quality be damned.

It doesn't matter that teams have maybe one-and-a-half days to practice before the Thursday games, and we get a bunch of sloppy, forgettable games. We're all so addicted to football that even crappy Thursday Night Football games just help the NFL economy churn along -- there will always be fantasy football chats to tell you which players to start Thursday Night, the pre-game storylines lead SportsCenter every Thursday afternoon, and on Friday everyone still writes their columns and those columns lead every website and sports page in America. This is why it feels naive when people complain about the replacement refs and "integrity of the game". Forget "the game".

In the sense of the "integrity" of the game, I completely agree with him. The core of the NFL has always been the entertainment it provides to fans. Anyone who is a fan of the Rams, Redskins, Eagles or Ravens was entertained yesterday, whether they were happy with the result or not (notice I'm not even mentioning Jets-Steelers...).

The reality, though, is that the nature of the game (read: technical play) has changed, not the integrity (read: entertainment value). So while the refs' ineptitude is just another variable in the larger web of narratives that make the product so compelling, that ineptitude represents one fact that causes two inherent problems that make the product we're viewing this year COMPLETELY different than what it was a year ago.

Why this year's NFL football is different than last year's after the jump.

FACT: The replacement referees don't have enough experience to accurately adjudicate an NFL game per the rules.

There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of situations that test even the most seasoned football referee. These aren't the most seasoned referees. That's why the refs didn't stop the game to automatically review what they initially ruled a Steven Jackson fumble near the end of the first drive of the second quarter to review the play, which is known as the rule. Jeff Fisher was forced to waste one of his challenges on a play he shouldn't even be allowed to do so on.

I sympathize with the replacement refs here. Asking them to learn the entirety of the NFL rule book and apply it correctly and comprehensively for the 80 or so plays a game is an impossible task. Yet they're not being asked to do it. It's being demanded by the league, the owners, the coaches, the players and the fans that they do so. It's just not going to happen.

They know this. They also know they have to attempt to referee the sport in accordance with the rules as best they can. In order to do that, there are two ways that they can make their jobs easier. We saw both of them yesterday.

Problem #1: Replacement referees are making calls on the field that they can correct with replay so as not to make a mistaken initial call that can't be corrected.

The Vick throw was a blatant example of this. I don't recall ever seeing a pass that was so obviously a pass ruled a fumble. But the referees knew the easy way of dealing with this: rule it a fumble, and if it's a pass in the booth, no harm no foul.

In this case, they were right. The booth saw (quickly, obviously, and it's worth noting the replay officials in the booth aren't replacements) that it was an incomplete pass and reversed the ruling on the field. The problem is that the NFL provides us with dozens of plays each week that don't provide us with the "incontrovertible visual evidence" required to change a call.

Consider the Brandon Gibson catch that was ruled out of bounds in the end zone. Was it a touchdown? It's very difficult to say. And given that we didn't get the full menu of camera angles during the broadcast that would have been provided had the play been reviewed, it's tough to say with any certainty (despite that it looked like he got both feet in from one view). The problem here is that either way, you likely didn't have "incontrovertible" evidence that would have overturned either call.

Now consider the 3rd down run after which Steven Jackson politely placed the ball on the turf in complete control of his emotions. The ruling was that he hadn't gotten in. After already making the mistake of forcing Jeff Fisher to challenge the previous play, should he have used a second challenge on that run? Was there "incontrovertible" evidence that the ball crossed the line? Because if Jeff Fisher loses that challenge, he doesn't have a red flag to throw for the final eight and a half minutes or so of the second half. If he loses that challenge and a situation comes up later that half that is of similar impact, we all know he'd be getting pounded today for "poor game management."

One more example, but this time a flag that should have been thrown: the Janoris Jenkins hit on TE Fred Davis. There's no doubt he was a defenseless receiver. It should have been a flag. Consider the situation: 4:54 to go in the game, Redskins down three points at their own 21-yard line. It's obviously a crucial situation. But if you throw that flag, you can't pick it up. If you're the ref and you make that call, you have to shoulder the responsibility. If you don't, well, it's not a rule that many are a fan of, and Davis wasn't injured (at least visibly in the short-term...), and the Skins still had the ball, so it appeared to be less intrusive on the game as an incorrect non-call than an incorrect call would be.

But that's a fallacy. The impact is equal. And the problem is simple: these refs are afraid to make hard calls at this level that they can't fix with replay because they don't have experience making hard calls at this level that they can't fix with replay. That has an impact on the game. But maybe more worrisome is the second problem.

Problem #2: Replacement referees aren't making calls that dictate the personality of the game, because they're too focused on the technicalities they can get right

Yesterday was by far the most emotional, most physical, most "chippy" Rams game I've seen in about a decade. The Redskins didn't back away from the challenge, and the shoving that began in the first quarter after nearly every play continued throughout the game. Hell, they fought during a damn replay at one point.

The Baltimore-Philly game was equally as raucous. What was a bit different in that game was the reaction from players and coaches about how much grabbing and tugging and pulling was going on all over the field that wasn't getting called precisely because it wasn't getting called. Consider this quote from 17-year veteran Ray Lewis:

We have to correct that. Because these games are critical. And guys are giving it everything they've got all across the league. And the calls, if the regular refs were here? We know the way the calls would be made...And for the conversations to be had the way they are on the sidelines - 'Oh, if the real refs were here, that call wouldn't be made.'

The players aren't even sure what environment they're playing in rule-wise. The coaches don't know either. Here's Ravens HC John Harbaugh:

The challenge for us right now is figuring out what constitutes what. What constitutes illegal contact? What constitutes pass interference? We're not sure right now.

They don't even know what application of the rules they're playing under.

How do you plan for that? How do you practice for that?

And the replacement refs can't fix that now. They know they can't get that "right" next week. What can they get right? Rules regarding timeouts, two-minute warnings, when plays can go to replay, when plays should automatically go to replay - the kinds of officiating that isn't based off interpretation.

Honestly? I think they'll get much better pretty quickly. Maybe in a few weeks time if they've avoided the clerical errors that have plagued them to this point, "replacement referees" become replaced with "referees" in more and more columns. Maybe the players adjust to the uncertainty of where the line stands on physical secondary play and how much handiwork can be done where and what each crew allows in the trenches.

The intricacies of NFL football between the kickoff and the final whistle have changed. This isn't the same football we watched last year. And yet despite the complaints, we're still watching in bigger numbers than ever before. The players the players keep playing, and the coaches keep coaching. That means the NFL can keep locking out the referees who aren't bothered by those two problems, because they do, in fact, have the experience necessary to referee this sport at its highest level.

I know some people are "outraged", and others are just feigning it. I'm not really either. I recognize that the game has changed, and in the gap that's been opened certain things are taking place that didn't before.

I guess I'm ok with that. As long as nobody gets hurt because of it. And as long as nobody takes unfair advantage of that.

And as long as the Rams keep winning.