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Analysis: Replacements not so different than regular refs

| Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers linebacker Larry Foote chases after referee David White on the field after the Raiders won as time expired Sunday September 23, 2012 at Coliseum in Oakland.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Steelers linebacker Larry Foote chases after referee David White on the field after the Raiders won as time expired Sunday September 23, 2012 at Coliseum in Oakland. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

Sure, they blew calls before colossal TV audiences, including the Monday night “Fail Mary” that gave the Seattle Seahawks a 14-12 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

But the NFL's replacement referees weren't nearly as bad — or different from regular refs — as fans, players and coaches would suggest, according to a Tribune-Review analysis of flags thrown in the initial three weeks of games this season and last.

The 2012 replacements were roughly equal to the 2011 regulars when it came to the average number of flags thrown and to meting out punishment on infractions like offensive and defensive holding, offsides, false start, face mask and neutral-zone violations.

They differed, however, on interference calls and with their inability to control the flow of the faster pro game.

Locked out by NFL owners in June, a crew of the league's full-time officials returned to work for Thursday night's Cleveland at Baltimore game armed with a new collective bargaining agreement brought about, at least in part, by public furor over the replacement refs.

The unionized refs won concessions that will hike the average annual salary of officials to $205,000 by 2019 — $56,000 more than they made last season — while retaining most of their current pension plan under a settlement offered by the league.

Replacement officials made $3,000 per game — $500 more for a head referee. They'll be paid for this weekend's games even though the regular refs will be back.

On Friday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to fans for the holdout. “As a lifelong fan, this wasn't an easy process for anyone involved,” he said. He singled out the replacement refs for “taking on an unenviable task and doing it with focus and dedication in the most adverse of circumstances.”

The Trib found replacement refs tossed, on average, about 13 flags per game — 15 if violations that were declined or were offsetting are counted. That breaks down to about 117 yards of infractions per game, 55 for the home team and 62 for the visitors.

During the first three games last season, regular crews also averaged 13 flags — 16 including offsetting and declined penalties. They walked off 109 yards per game, 53 yards against the home team and 56 against the visitors.

Replacement refs, however, were more likely to call offensive and defensive pass interference, walking off 1,072 yards total in the first 48 games. That's 40 percent more than what officials doled out during the same span last season.

The replacement refs called 22 percent fewer infractions designed to impede pushing behind the back, tugging an opponent's hands and jerseys or other forms of illegal contact, according to the analysis.

To someone with 31 years of experience officiating in the league like Jim Tunney — nicknamed by peers the “Dean of NFL Referees” — the replacement officials suffered from an inability to understand how fast football is played at the pro level and how elite athletes would take advantage of that inexperience. Tunney said that too many coaches and players lost respect for the replacements.

“They had a hard time with the pace and flow of the game,” said Tunney, an official in three Super Bowls and an alternate in a fourth. “Those were the biggest concerns for me, plus control. They couldn't control the game because it was too fast for them, a great deal faster than the high school or college games they usually officiated.”

Tunney graded the replacements with an “F,” but that's mostly because they were inexperienced and hadn't developed the relationships with coaches and players that he said are essential at the pro level. Those traits can't be hired off the street; they evolve over time, he said.

“An official must know how to talk to coaches. He talks to the players all the time, too. The science of the game comes down to understanding the nuance of the rules, how you use them to control the speed of the players,” he said. “You can't translate that for officials who have worked only high school or college games.”

Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826or

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