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No matter what, NFL’s black eye will linger

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It looks like the NFL referee lockout will end in time for the regular officials to be back on the field for the Week 4 games. But that by no means ensures the issue is a thing of the past. Not after the Packers were hosed on Monday night by an official who had been deemed unfit for Division I college football.

If and when late December rolls around and Green Bay is fighting for a playoff spot and comes up a game short (unlikely) or loses a tiebreaker it would have otherwise won (very much a possibility) and therefore loses a bye or has to go on the road in the postseason, the aftershock will be greater than the quake.

golden-tate1It didn’t take a polished football mind to see this coming. From the outset, it was clear the replacement refs were overmatched. Not counting subjective elements of the job (which even the regular officials struggle with, albeit not to the degree of the replacements) the scabs proved incapable of consistently spotting the ball correctly, marking off penalty yards, keeping timeout inventories, awarding challenges and generally maintaining order and game flow. In other words, the stuff that fans, and more importantly, players and coaches take for granted. That’s not even mentioning a few glaring conflicts of interest that surfaced.

That was the writing on the wall, the fodder for news conferences, talk shows and water coolers. You could take your pick of issues plaguing the replacements on the field, and make a solid case as to how they were overmatched. It wasn’t until Sunday night in Baltimore, however, that “overmatched” became “utterly ill-equipped.”

In the biggest game of the season to date – a rematch of the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Ravens – the replacements were cooked from the word go. Players engaged after the whistle on nearly every play, which stripped the game of any semblance of rhythm. The refs tried to counterbalance that by throwing so many flags it was fair to wonder if it was free banana night at M&T Bank Stadium. Both teams were victimized by terrible calls.

Then, on the game’s final play with the Patriots leading, 30-28, kicker Justin Tucker hooked a 27-yard field goal over the left upright. Was the kick good? Did it sail to the outside of the upright? Replays showed it was too close to call. The only person who could definitively tell was the official standing underneath the upright. He signaled “good,” and the game was over.

Analysis of the first two weeks had already shown that the replacements were being influenced by the home crowds in respect to the calls they made and in what situations. After all, the majority of these guys had never worked in front of more than a few thousand fans, let alone upwards of seventy or more.

So was the kick good? Or more to the point, if it was indeed slightly wide left, was that official capable of processing the brain wave to criss-cross his arms in front of a bloodthirsty Baltimore crowd that not long ago had managed the clearest and “loudest manure chant” Al Michaels had ever heard? Was the official thinking about Billy Cundiff in the AFC title game and how he might not escape M&T Bank Stadium with his extremities intact if he signaled no-good? Or was he making the call he was paid to make? Would he have made the same call on the same kick at Gillette Stadium?

It’s impossible to know, but after a similar occurrence at CenturyLink Field twenty-four hours later – only this time far more egregious and hideous – one that unequivocally cost the Packers a win, all those questions are valid. And that’s what happens when a monolith like the NFL loses its credibility.

The referees may be on their way back this weekend. As for the integrity of the league, the best-case scenario is January.

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