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Replacement refs out of their depth

| Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't seem too impressed with the replacement officials who worked a recent practice. (Steph Anderson | Tribune-Review)

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn't appear impressed with his first look at the NFL's replacement officials. Perhaps he realizes it can only get worse.

“Quit blowing your whistle! We're trying to get work done! … Stop! These guys (players) know what they're doing!” were some of his comments during an officiated practice.

The NFL will begin its preseason with replacement officials — some from the lower ranks of college football, others from high school — starting with the Hall of Fame game. Based on similar experiments in other sports, it might not be pretty.

With familiar faces such as the muscular and multisyllabic Ed Hochuli locked out in a labor dispute, the NFL is taking a major gamble with the quality of its game — and the healthy and safety of its players — by employing officials who might not be able to keep up with the speed and technicality of the game. These won't be the top college officials, either; the FBS conferences aren't allowing officials to move up to the NFL, as they did for one weekend in 2001.

The locked-out officials want more money than the $189,000 the NFL is proposing to pay by the 2018 season and also want moved from a 401(k) retirement plan to a defined plan. The NFL Referees Association argues its request for additional pay would cost each team only an extra $100,000 per season, or one-quarter the cost of a minimum-salary player.

Some Steelers players are nonplussed about possibly starting the season with amateurish officials, saying they can only play and the officiating will take care of itself. Others are worried.

“It is a big jump, and, yes, you will have professional athletes in their face getting at them,” left tackle Max Starks said. “It will be tough and difficult because sometimes you will be expecting them to make the call, and they won't and you'll be mad.”

Starks can only imagine how coaches, players and fans will react if a regular season game is decided by an obviously blown call by an out-of-his-league official.

“They're going to blow up, especially the fans in that city. I hope it's not in Philly, throwing batteries and everything else when they're going off the field,” Starks said. “You'd have to get a riot squad out.”

Guard Ramon Foster also is concerned, in part because he understands that a complicated change of possession play might not be called properly and could expose players to injury.

“Any time you put somebody in a position to judge and refree a professional game and they're not that experienced, something could happen,” Foster said. “I'm not sure what's going to happen. But I'm sure it will get worked out by the time game time comes around because nobody wants to see the players get hurt.”

Starks explained the locked-out officials miss calls, too.

“That's why they get graded. They're not considered supreme, all knowing, all being at all times,” he said.

The out-of-action officials just might be viewed with such respect if the replacements remain in place for the Steelers' Sept. 9 opener in Denver.


First-round draft pick David DeCastro quickly earned the nickname of Mr. Personality from his Steelers teammates because of his stoic demeanor. He was more talkative when discussing his days at Stanford.

What was it like being No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck's chief protector? “He's competitive, but at the same time he was one of those leaders that you wanted to play for, you wanted to protect. You knew that if you gave him time, with that ability, he was going to make the most out of it because he has that talent.”

Stanford has one of the most difficult curriculums of any university. What were you most difficult courses? “Mathematical Foundations of Computing, the logic behind it, that was hard. Stochastic Modeling (a computer math course that statistically analyzes random probability) — I couldn't even tell you what it's about. You just get to the final and the stuff goes out of your brain. You don't even remember it anymore.”

You had a famous classmate in golfer Michelle Wie. Did you know her well? “She lived a couple of doors down from me my junior year. We were good friends. She's great, just a normal person. That was pretty impressive. When you come to Stanford, you're just a normal kid; it's just that people are just more impressed with you if you're playing football or playing golf.”


RB Baron Batch surprised at last year's camp until he tore up a knee; he has stood out so far in this camp with his physicality. He's competing with Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey for playing time behind Isaac Redman (and, later, Rashard Mendenhall) and the first audition comes Thursday in Philadelphia.

“Nobody is being pegged as a certain type player right now,” Batch said. “Everybody has to be able to do everything.”


Preseason games are the time to show off fresh legs and still-new arms, but backup QBs Charlie Batch (15 years) and Byron Leftwich (10 years) have a combined 25 years of experience. The Steelers must find out if they still can count on them, and they'll play a lot in August.

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