Saturday, February 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers among NFL players raising red flags about replacement officials

TAMPA — Bucs receiver Sammie Stroughter caught the ball and turned up the field, needing 12 yards for a first down, and he appeared to gain exactly that many.

But wait: A dispute about the spot of the ball prompted the replay assistant to call for a review. Referee Jim Core trudged to the booth to take a gander and decided the mark was correct, sort of.

After announcing as much and allowing the Bucs and Redskins to prepare for the next snap, Core blew his whistle and said: "We'll look at it one more time."

At what? And why? The call ultimately stood.

That scenario in Wednesday's preseason finale at Washington was comical and put a brighter spotlight on the NFL's labor dispute with its locked-out game officials. Through the preseason, replacements from varying backgrounds with varying levels of experience have been used. And when negotiations between the league and the officials union Friday and Saturday failed to result in a resolution, it became a near certainty that replacements will remain for Week 1 of the regular season, which begins with Wednesday's opener between the Cowboys and Giants.

Typically, officials are the part of the game fans most take for granted. The less they are noticed, the more satisfactory their performances likely are.

To the men most affected by the dispute, the issues are secondary. All they know is they're paying much too much attention to officials lately.

"Oh, you notice," Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. "That (replay issue) is something I've never seen. Some of them seem a little nervous, tentative. Most of them are college (officials). Some of them are retired guys. They are out of practice, I think.

"It's not like they're incompetent. But they're just not used to officiating on this level, which is very different."

Guard Carl Nicks was appalled by Wednesday's scenario.

"Come on, man!" he said. "You can't mess up on little things, like resetting the clock and things like that."

The league and the officials union continue to jostle over issues including pension plans, which the union says the league wants to terminate. The league wants to implement what it says is a fair 401(k) plan instead. Salary is an issue, too, as is a proposal by the league to add officials. The latter will result in less work for current officials, who are paid per game, the union says.

Mike Arnold, lead negotiator for the NFL Referees Association, said talks broke down Saturday and no new ones are scheduled. He said he expects replacements to be on the field this week.

Among the challenges the replacements will continue to face is adjusting to the pro game. Most come from the college ranks — generally, not major college football — and that concerns players.

"The rules about getting (a receiver's) feet down, ball (possession), all those kinds of things are different," Barber said.

Bucs backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky said: "You definitely have to be concerned about the experience level. … It's just the speed with which things happen in the NFL. I think the officials that normally do our games do a pretty good job. It's kind of like in basketball; they let guys play. … And they really understand situations."

The league's recent emphasis on player safety, and the many complicated rules employed to ensure it, are going to be a problem for replacements, too.

"We do feel we are an integral part of (player safety)," Arnold told the Associated Press. "We think it is unfortunate, and we really don't understand why the league is willing to risk player safety and the integrity of the game by utilizing amateur officials."

The scrutiny of the replacements will heighten with the regular season beginning. Games generally are decided by slim margins, and officials often are called upon to make game-changing calls.

"A big penalty that has a big swing in yards, like a pass-interference call — one that should have gotten called or shouldn't have been called — stuff like that is crucial when you're talking about the end of a game," Nicks said. "I just hope they get it worked out."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @HolderStephen. The Times' Bucs Beat blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs.

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