As a general rule, players don't think much of officials. Wide receivers and defensive linemen are convinced they're held on every play. Any defensive player who has a flag thrown his way typically reacts with a combination of shock and disgust.
But after three weeks of playing under the officiating of high school and Division III officials, the NFL finally got off its position when the replacement refs burned the Green Bay Packers out of a win and turned the tables on gamblers – estimates have ranged between $150 million and $1 billion in bets that flip-flopped on the final play.
It was a worst-case scenario that, unfortunately, too many people believed was inevitable. But, being that the replacement officials blew two games involving Super Bowl contenders New England, Green Bay and Baltimore on national TV when football fans throughout the country were watching made it even worse. The refs at the Metrodome Sunday were as brutal as any, but the whole country didn't see it. They all saw the missed field goal that was called good that cost the Patriots a game and Bill Belichick $50,000 when he grabbed one of the officials after the game. Just as many, if not more, saw the horrible call on the final play of the Seattle-Green Bay game that turned a five-point Packers win in a two-point loss.
As word emerged Wednesday morning that the league and the locked out officials were close to reaching an agreement that will get them back to work this weekend, the reaction from players was almost unanimous – it's about time. As frustrated as fans were, when it's your job that gets impacted by sub-par officials, it was a little more personal, which made the announcement that an agreement was imminent all the more satisfying.
"That's great news," CB Josh Robinson said. "(Monday) was a tough game. It's rough on any player, because that could be you. That was a difficult situation for any player."
Fullback Jerome Felton summed up the feeling of many players. The replacement refs were forced to make such a jump because Division I and II college officials were effectively told if they crossed the line to officiate NFL games they would be blackballed from the college game, forcing the league to scrape the bottom of the officiating barrel to find guys who were either out of refereeing or doing it at a low level – a couple of them were rejected as officials in the Lingerie League, which speaks volumes to their incompetence. Bringing back the regular referees will be applauded by players, primarily because most of them know what they're doing and the Phil Luckett's of the world are the exception, not the rule.
"That's good news for everybody," Felton said. "Most of them have been doing this for years and years. Those replacement refs were in a tough position. Even for guys who play the game, the transition for a top college to the NFL is a big leap and you aren't fully prepared for it right away. These refs were officiating high school and small college games. That jump to the NFL was something they clearly struggled with. It will be best for everyone when the regular refs are back on the field."
The breaking point was Monday night's final play, although a phantom pass interference penalty two plays earlier actually allowed the final play to happen – doubling the problem. When Packers safety M.D. Jennings pulled in the final pass, only to have Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate get his arms with a lengthy wrestling match on the ground, the quintessential moment became the visual of the one official signaling touchback for the interception and the other signaling touchdown.
"The thing is, the referees, the replacement guys, they're put in such a tough position," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "They're doing the best they can and you can't blame them for anything and they're busting their butts to do it. And even when the regular guys come back, they're going to make mistakes as well. I feel bad for them. They're doing a lot of hard work and I appreciate what they're doing."
That Monday night play made the refs the story, not the players or the product of the top sport in the modern United States. It wasn't just ESPN that was talking about it. So was CNN and just about every media outlet that carried live programming Tuesday. Seeing as it happened to the Packers, there were no tears shed among Vikings fans … or players.
"It's been all over the news," Gerhart said. "Everybody has been talking about it, from politicians to (network talk shows). That game may have tipped the scale. Unfortunately – or fortunately – it was the Packers, so I wasn't all that disappointed. On all the replays, it looked clearly like Jennings had the ball and Tate just stuck his arms in there. They made an on-the-spot call and they did what they felt was right and it went down as one of the most controversial plays."
While the bad call was what got the attention of outsiders, the primary concern with the replacement refs among players was that they weren't seeing things, including potential career-ending chop blocks on the line.
"At times, you were a little concerned with your safety when you saw some of the things that took place the last couple of weeks that (the replacement referees) didn't see," Guion said. "You want the refs to make the right calls at the right time. There were times when offensive linemen figured they could get away with downfield hits on you or chop blocks because they weren't being called. The backup officials may not have been prepared or used to making those types of calls. It's always good to have our regular refs to do their job."
As a whole, the players are happy to hear that the regular officials are coming back. While the players aren't buddy-buddy with the regular referees, they get to know them over the years and will likely try to schmooze them up when they return. The officials will be glad to see they're appreciated by the players, but Guion expects that, just like players when the game begins, they will be back to doing what always do – making the calls that infuriate the players, coaches and fans of the team penalized.
"You try to talk to the refs, work them a little bit and get them on your side because you've been around them before," Guion said. "But the truth is it never works. They have their own mindset. They aren't going to get every call right. Nobody can. But it is safe to say that the games will be called more in keeping with the rules. I think all the players will be happy to see them back."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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