Three weeks into the NFL season, the replacement referee issue has spiraled completely out of hand. After an optimistic start to the season, the reaction has progressed something like this:
Week 1: "That was a little sloppier than usual, but hey, that wasn't so bad!"
Week 2: "Hmm, there sure were a lot of fights and stuff on the field this week. Plus that whole St. Louis-Washington game? I wonder if the real refs will be back soon."
Week 3: "WHAT THE F*CK?!"
It was easy to speculate, during the first 47 regular season games, that a blown call here or a phantom penalty there might have affected the outcome of a game. It was just as easy to say that the regular referees make mistakes, and that one play rarely directly decides the winner of a game.
And then came Monday, September 24th. On national television. On the final play of a one-possession game. Featuring one of the league's golden teams.
There is just absolutely no possible way to argue that the Seahawks beat the Packers. The referees beat the Packers, or at best some combination of the referees and the Seahawks. And that call, on Golden Tate's game-ending, game-winning touchdown reception as time expired, is simply not a call that the real referees would have ever missed. If they had, they'd have taken the time to get it right, rather than engaged in the half-hearted review process that ended with the two teams getting pulled back onto the field for a meaningless extra point that must have twisted the knife a little for Green Bay and its fans.
And so now the NFL has to sit back and pray that the Seahawks and the Packers don't make or miss the playoffs by a game, respectively. Because if either team does, the league will have implicitly condoned the complete farce of the year-end standings.
Then again, it's not like we didn't see this coming. It's not just that the replacement referees aren't as quick or as competent as the regular crew, it's that they're clearly unfamiliar with the rules and how and when to apply them. Granting Jim Harbaugh extra challenges? Allowing Pete Carroll extra timeouts? Not knowing where to spot the ball after a penalty, which happens multiple times in every single game? These aren't judgment calls. These are procedural issues. There's absolutely no defense whatsoever for these mistakes being made.
It's clear that these referees are not just less good at their jobs. They're woefully unprepared for the speed, rigor, and intensity of NFL games and lack the knowledge to execute the job properly.
All of this, of course, is 100% sanctioned by Roger Goodell and the NFL. And they've proven to be no better prepared for the contingency of replacement referees, having totally failed to make sure the scabs are up to snuff and even skimped on background checks, evidenced by the Saints fan/referee they had to pull from his assignment on the New Orleans game because the league belatedly discovered photos of him decked out in Saints gear.
And now, finally, we've got a case in which the scab refs outright decided the outcome of a game. Forget the fans; how many more weeks are the players and the coaches going to put up with this? It's going to be increasingly difficult for the league to keep a lid on its employees, much less the media.
Already Bill Belichick, Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco, and dozens of others have spoken out against the replacements, some more angrily than others. Belichick is probably looking at a hefty fine. Jason Avant said he wasn't sure the referees would be able to control the players on the field, and that prediction is proving truer with each passing week.
How long can we reasonably expect the players to put up with this performance? It's one thing for an individual performance to be affected, for a touchdown to be called back or a penalty incorrectly assessed. Damning though that may be on the stat sheet, it pales in comparison to asking players like the Packers' M.D. Jennings to forfeit a full win in the standings for his team because the referees couldn't correctly make a simple call.
What happens when the players and coaches completely and totally lose faith in the referees' ability to effectively and correctly officiate a game? We're about to find out, and my guess is that it's not going to be pretty.
For an obsessive-compulsive league that micromanages things like what hat Wes Welker wears during postgame press conferences, the NFL's willingness to entrust the officiating of its precious games to under-prepared incompetents is astounding.
Outside the auspices of the game itself, a lot of the debate about the replacement refs has increasingly been couched in rhetoric about unions and strikes and lockouts and politics. There are arguments to be had on both sides of that issue.
What's not arguable is that the NFL, with the result of the Packers-Seahawks game, has irrevocably and negatively altered the outcome of the 2012 season over a couple of million dollars' worth of salary and benefits. Rather than continuing to grandstand and pretend that the brand is bigger than the sum of its parts, Roger Goodell and the rest of the league's administrators ought to concede that real referees are an essential part of what makes the league run smoothly. Without them, we are treated to the tragicomedy that a nation witnessed on Monday Night Football.
Even before this week, Steve Young came right out and said that the league simply doesn't care about the situation, and that's the truly sad thing here. It's not clear that it does.
If it does care, and if it wants to show the public that it does, then it will take this Packers-Seahawks debacle as a sign that things have gone farther than they ever should have, and the league will acquiesce to the referees' demands in time to get them back on the field for week four.
As much as that would sting the ultra-proud league, it's clear the NFL has lost this battle. The real refs gambled that they possessed a unique enough skill set to make them indispensable, and that has been proven in spades. The NFL needs to admit that it's been wrong and do what's necessary to fix a growing problem.
Otherwise, one shudders at the thought of what kinds of escapades a rapidly deteriorating officiating situation has in store for the coming weeks.