NFL fans right now are worried about all the wrong things. The focus of the offseason and preseason has been about their favorite teams. Who will be starting, who is injured and who will make the final 53-man roster?
Yet the people that could make or break your favorite team's season are not the ones sweating it out every day on the practice field. They are not the coaches and front office personnel making the big-picture decisions. It is not that one free agent you believe will put your club's roster over the top.
In reality, the biggest threat to your team's success is the group of overmatched and under-qualified replacement referees currently butchering the preseason.
In the NFL, any given play during any given game can be the snap that sends a club to, or prevents them from, making the playoffs.
Think about it, the Chicago Bears started off 7-3 last year. In Week 12, Johnny Knox slipped on a slant pattern, leading to a Chargers interception. Jay Cutler managed to prevent the pick-six but he broke his thumb in the process. The club finished the year 1-5 and missed out on the playoffs.
Had Knox not slipped, had one player kept his footing during one play of one game, the Bears would have very likely made the playoffs. Who knows what would've happened after that.
This carries over to the impact referees have on the outcomes of NFL games. One bad call could cost a team a win, a win that could cost them a playoff spot. And as the 9-7 New York Giants proved last year, getting hot in the postseason can lead to a championship, no matter if you barely made the cut.
The NFL has locked out its referees after the two sides were able to negotiate a new deal. As a result, replacement refs have been brought in to officiate preseason contests. The results have been borderline disastrous. Players and coaches across the league have lamented the officiating, with Robbie Gould recently calling them "clueless."
The two sides have shown no sign of progress during the negotiating process and it appears very likely these replacement refs will be on the field come Week 1 deciding the outcomes of games.
That's a scary thought.
"The pace of play with this game, which will change from the preseason to the regular season, is a concern with new referees," Bears punter Adam Podlesh, Chicago's player representative, said today. "Usually these referee crews don't replace more than one member of their crew each year, and essentially you now have everybody that's new. That change of pace of play is going to be a concern."
Yet it's not just the final score that is in jeopardy. Player safety is a big concern playing under referees that don't fully understand all the rules and how they relate to keeping athletes from hurting each other. There are certainly players in this league that will take liberties when it comes to borderline dirty play, as it's currently defined, if they know the zebras aren't qualified to spot it.
"[The regular refs] have been around the game," said Roberto Garza. "They know what they're doing. But we might be able to get away with more. That would be good for us."
So it's possible these new refs, what my father would call "scabs", could severely compromise player safety. As Bears fans know, the wrong injury to the wrong player could be the death knell to a season.
"Let's see if they can keep up and foremost they protect the player, keep them safe, which is something that the players and the NFL have been doing a whole lot to maintain," Podlesh said. "And to continue to progress in keeping the players safe. That's a strong point of concern with the replacement referees. Not to say that they won't be able to do it, it's just a concern because it's a question mark on if they will be able to handle that change of pace of play.''
The NFL claims the referees are showing progress each week and are confident they'll soon reach an acceptable level of officiating. When, or even if, that happens is anyone's guess. The current group of referees are in way over their heads, so I wouldn't expect that switch to suddenly flip any time soon.
So while we fret over the competition at left tackle, the sixth wide receiver position and injuries to key players, the real threat to a team's success lies with the group of zebras inconspicuously roaming the field.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.