NFL must get real officials back soon

NFL replacement officials are the easiest targets in sports these days.

Based on their work in the first seven preseason games, it's easy to understand why.

They've been terrible. But get used to it, because I expect this mess to last through at least the second week of the preseason.

In an attempt to cut the best financial deal for owners, the NFL is flexing its muscles in labor talks with real officials. That's fine -- it's business. But unfortunately these labor pains are happening during the preseason -- a schedule that commissioner Roger Goodell concedes is two games too many. The fourth preseason game is a throwaway in which coaches rest starters, so the collateral damage for NFL fans could be three really poorly officiated preseason games.

But if the NFL doesn't get a deal to bring the real officials back by the third preseason week, the league could ruin what might be a great season. Millions of dollars are being spent to enhance the in-game experience for fans, including the addition of apps for fans to watch enhanced replays and other games live. Enhancing the game experience is one thing, but not investing enough to assure games are officiated by the best officials is hypocritical. The NFL has said it has offered 5 to 11 percent raises for officials and that the officials' union must accept significant changes in its pension plan. I'm not taking sides on who is right or wrong in the money talks. I'm just saying this lockout can't continue longer than two preseason games.

Mistakes by replacement officials have been embarrassing. Referee Craig Ochoa blew the coin toss in the Hall of Fame Game, incorrectly announcing to the crowd the team that won the toss. In Thursday night's Washington-Buffalo preseason game, officials called a touchback on a punt that didn't go into the end zone. Bills fans booed, and Buffalo coach Chan Gailey had to use a coach's challenge to rectify an obvious mistake.

The same crew missed a sure illegal contact call when Redskins cornerback Cedric Griffin slammed into Bills receiver Steve Johnson on a deep pass downfield.

Real officials make mistakes too, of course, but not like these replacements.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick rarely adds fuel to any media fire, but he did Th
ursday night after the Patriots' 7-6 win over New Orleans -- a game in which 15 penalties were accepted.

"I think Mike Pereira has made his comments on the officials," Belichick told reporters. "I don't know who knows more about NFL officiating than Mike Pereira, so we'll leave it to him. I'm just trying to coach our team and get our team better. I'm not worried about what everybody else is doing. It's not my job."

Pereira, the NFL former vice president of officiating, said replacement officiating mars the integrity of the game.

The NFL is better than this.
Fans and media won't remember this weeks from now if the regular officials are back for the regular season. But real officials need at least a couple of preseason games to refresh their knowledge of the new rules and get into a rhythm with their crews. Let's not let the game suffer by letting replacements hang around too long.

Bring the real crews back.