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Saturday Morning Quarterback
Oct 01, 2012 12:40 pm
Welcome back, NFL officials
When the Oilers moved to Nashville in the late 1990s, I went to a preseason game at Vanderbilt Stadium to watch the future Titans take on the Super Bowl-champion Denver Broncos.
Among other things, I soon noticed how players and coaches routinely yelled at the officials. Covering high school games for years, I was accustomed to seeing yellow flags fly and the ball marched 15 yards up or down the field at even the slightest hint of unsportsmanlike conduct. On rare occasions, a player or even a coach might get thrown out. Instead, the line judge marked the ball, the umpire spotted it and the referee signaled for the play clock to re-start for the next snap. As long as they weren't physically touched and players and coaches basically stayed where they were supposed to, the zebras seemed oblivious to the vitriol spewed their way.
That thick skin was often missing the past seven weeks as officials from the lowest rungs of the college and pro football ladder replaced men seasoned with years, even decades, of experience dealing with some of the biggest and fastest men on the planet and coaches fighting like their very livelihoods were on the line – because they were.
Interestingly, it took what at least one longtime Friendship Christian observer called "the fastest player to ever compete on Pirtle Field" to help break the camel's back on the NFL officials lockout.
Golden Tate was a Pope John Paul II freshman and sophomore when his Knights faced the Commanders in a two-game home-and-home series almost a decade ago. Even then, FCS coach John McNeal knew Tate was something special - a man among boys he knew his defense couldn't stop.
Unless you've tuned out the world for the last six days, you know Tate was the Seattle Seahawks receiver who got away with pushing off a defender and then grab the football from another Green Bay Packer defensive back in the end zone for what was ruled, even after a 12-minute replay review, as a touchdown, giving the 'Hawks a tainted victory over the Pack.
The call was so egregious even at least one member of the winning Seahawks, when he saw the replay on a TV screen at a restaurant during a postgame dinner, felt a big lump in his throat when he realized his team probably shouldn't have won the game.
It was so bad that both Barack Obama and Paul Ryan, who can't agree in which direction the sun rises every morning, said in unison the replacements must go. Same for the Packers' mortal enemies, the Chicago Bears.
The NFL, whose commissioner and some of the owners were insulting the intelligence of the pro football intelligentsia with their inane statements defending the replacements, had no choice but to get the regulars back on the field, and did so within three days.
Admittedly, the games with the replacements were exciting – but usually for all the wrong reasons. It seems half of Sunday's games came down to a final controversial play which needed review, including the most exciting Titans' game in the 14-year history of LP Field. But the games, which were already running too long because of excessive TV commercials, were never-ending. I had other things to do Sunday and had to listen to the end of the game on the truck radio. And when I arrived at my destination with the officials trying to decide if the Lions had converted a fourth down, I had to switch to listening on my Android phone.
And it wasn't just the missed calls. The subs often didn't know the rules and, worse, were intimidated by the players and coaches they were used to seeing on TV. The regular officials kick calls, too, just not as often. And they at least know the rules and maintain control of the game.
For a league which has long enforced rules to protect the integrity of the game and, in more recent years, has tried to make the game safer, these fill-ins were undoing both.
And it wasn't just in the Sunday league. Because BCS conference officials didn't sign on to work for The Shield on a temporary basis, the league had to go to Division III, the NAIA, Arena League and even the Lingerie League to find folks to call the games.
That meant those leagues, at least those who also play in the fall, had to scramble to find replacements themselves. Three of the officials scheduled to work a recent Cumberland game were instead blowing whistles in San Francisco on Sunday Night Football. That meant the Mid-South Conference had to dig even deeper down the football food chain for its own replacements, who often were no more qualified to call a small college game than small college refs were to work in the NFL.
Fans love to hate officials. But when the regular refs showed up in Baltimore for the Ravens' game against the Browns Thursday night, they were cheered as if they were Ray Lewis, who hugged one of them. They even tipped their hats to the crowd.
While the lockout has made us all more appreciative of the officials, this lovefest with the refs won't last. But even the biggest referee-hater had to appreciate the take-charge attitude of the crew in Baltimore, which flagged the Browns for 15 yards when Coach Pat Shurmer came too far out onto the field to protest a late call.
To Ed Hochuli, Mike Carey, Walt Coleman, Jeff Triplette and any other NFL official you would like to name – it's great to have you back.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952, ext. 17; or by email at email@example.com