A little balance on NFL replacement officials

The NFL rulebook is far more detailed than one might realize.

The 2011 version ran 113 pages and included information such as how a referee should rule if an NFL coach sends all his players, not just captains, to the middle of the field for the pregame coin toss (ruling: loss of coin-toss option for both halves and loss of 15 yards on the opening kickoff).

There's a lot to know, and good reason for concern as the NFL prepares to use replacement officials while the regular ones remain without contracts. But we should also remember what happened when the NFL used replacement officials to open the 2001 regular season. The games continued without incident.

"No major controversies in Week 1", an ESPN.com headline read afterward.

"I thought they did a great job," Eric Moulds, then a receiver for the Buffalo Bills, said in the story.

I was a beat reporter covering the Seattle Seahawks for those 2001 opening games. A check through the stories I filed from Seattle's 9-6 victory at Cleveland found only passing reference to the replacement officials. The sixth item in an eight-item notebook I filed spanned 61 words and featured then-coach Mike Holmgren, a man never afraid to criticize officials, saying the replacements "did a good job" that day.

Even future union leader Kevin Mawae, then a New York Jets center, gave the replacements a vote of approval: "I thought they did a good job. ... Even the regular guys miss a few calls from time to time, so for the most part they did a good job."

Critics of the current replacements have resorted to picking nits over errors made during exhibition games.

One current replacement ref had to issue a correction after messing up the coin-toss announcement at the Hall of Fame game. Big deal. Remember Phil Luckett?

Another replacement official signaled touchback for a punt downed at the 4-yard line, a call overturned on replay. That miscue was laughable, but just last season, regular officials missed a yard-line spot by five yards, as San Francisco 49ers fans should recall.

"The officiating crew incorrectly spotted the ball at the Detroit 35 instead of the 40, where Ted Ginn went out of bounds," the NFL said in a statement after the 49ers' victory at Detroit.

It's possible the current replacements aren't as good as the ones used in 2001. Perhaps they're even far worse. Those are difficult things to know. People sounding the alarms probably haven't studied the officials all that closely. They wouldn't know.

Most of the outrage stems, I suspect, from people unsympathetic to a wealthy league playing hardball against officials earning relatively small sums for their work. I'm sure they'll pounce if the replacements do make significant errors, but even the most established officials can make them.