ATLANTA — After more than 15 seasons in the National Football League, Tony Gonzalez knew the questions were coming.
After a night that would showcase the fruits of the league’s referee lockout, the Atlanta Falcons tight end could only chuckle when answering inquiries about a game his team just won, 27-21, but so few were truly focused on. He knew he could not criticize the replacement officials’ performance — that leads to unnecessary payments to the league office. But he also knew what he saw in the Georgia Dome Monday night, and he’s savvy enough to understand the predicament professional football finds itself in at the moment.
“Not surprised at all, we’ve been there done that,” Gonzalez said of the stalled negotiations, referencing past labor talks between the players and the NFL. “Good luck to the refs.”
Replacement officials created some negative buzz during preseason play and the first week of the NFL season, but, collectively, they worsened in Week 2, culminating in a four-hour turtle race between the Falcons and Broncos.
Both coaches, John Fox and Mike Smith, nearly blew a fuse due to their unsatisfactory understanding of the league rulebook. The matchup’s national audience released their frustrations onto the social media landscape.
And, for the most part, everyone was right.
The NFL’s lockout of its officials has reached a tipping point. Most believed that point came in the mistake-filled preseason or a botched late call during the Seattle-Arizona game. But that’s not what will hurt the NFL’s ultimate cause. Controversy and blame-game scenarios do not drive viewers away from their televisions — if anything, they might watch more replays.
But Monday night drove viewers crazy. Incompetence and delays pushed the game past deadlines and patience — it was 12:08 a.m., when the opposing coaches shook hands at midfield — and the one thing that will open up the eyes and ears of Commissioner Roger Goodell and other executives is when the grumblings of the almighty dollar become audible. If the NFL’s premium product becomes consistently slow and mishandled, how long will TV ratings hold up?
“That was the longest first quarter that I’ve ever been involved in. It looked like we were going to have a four-hour game, but it was a very long first quarter,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We kept a bunch of people up late, and I bet we’ll have a bunch of people not showing up for work tomorrow.”
Even the fans were drained, rubbing their eyes on their slow strolls toward the exit signs. Falcons players, poised to fly out to the West Coast later this week to face the Chargers, also commented on the length of the game. Tuesday Morning Football does not have the same ring to it, but it felt more appropriate.
“Yeah, you can definitely sense a stoppage. But you’ve gotta bear with [the replacement officials], they’ve kinda been thrown into the fire. I’m not gonna pick on them too much,” Gonzalez said. “They’re kinda in a tough position, but at the same time they should know what they’re doing.”
Evidence shows the opposite is true. The replacements look lost at times.
There was the time when Fox tried to review a penalty for his defense having 12 men on the field. One replacement official threw a flag onto the turf penalizing Denver for trying to challenge the ruling. John Fox left his emotions on his sleeve. Of course, the play was reviewable and all was corrected after (only) a 10-minute delay.
There was the time when the Falcons were assessed a five-yard defensive holding penalty on the Broncos’ lone first-half scoring drive. Peyton Manning & Co. were given 11 yards for the flag. Of course, the replacement referees never caught that one.
Everyone else did.
“If y’all (media) take it easy a little bit, maybe they’ll get it right,” Falcons receiver Roddy White said with a laugh. “I mean they got a job to do and those are the backup officials so you never know what to expect. You just try to feel the flow for the game and what they’re giving you.”
The issue is not the outcome; it is the product.
The Falcons — through good calls and bad — were the better team Monday night, and the final score reflected it. Matt Ryan and his receivers were clicking again, distributing 24 completions for 219 yards and two scores. The fifth-year quarterback even threw for the 100th touchdown of his career against the Denver secondary, but his defense’s befuddling of Manning in the first quarter proved the difference.
The Falcons’ secondary ignited the home crowd with three interceptions off the future Hall of Famer in the opening period, setting up a deficit the Broncos could not overcome in the closing minutes.
It should have been an exciting game, a statement for a 2-0 Falcons team that is one of the NFL’s brightest teams so far in 2012. However, the final product was lousy, a whistle-happy combination that left replacement officials looking at one another in bewilderment for a disturbing part of four quarters.
“In this league you have to overcome a lot of things and we don’t use officiating as an excuse,” Fox said.
True hypocrisy lies in the subtext for the NFL, and it is an issue players have discussed — behind closed doors, for the most part — since the lockout began in early June. Player safety, the league’s “No. 1 priority,” is jeopardized when those enforcing the rules can not keep up with the speed of the game. How long is the NFL willing to play with fire before a career-ending injury brings these issues bubbling to the surface?
Even in a firestorm of lawsuits and concussion research the NFL is proving that as long as the public’s hunger for professional football remains insatiable, its outdated views on officiating remain a matter of fill-in-the-blank. Television ratings aren’t likely to diminish any time soon, so there is little motivation, in the NFL’s collective mind, to acquiesce to the true pros in the officiating profession. If that stance endangers the lives of players, so be it — or so the underlying thought process goes.
The NFL will not readily admit to the problems publicly, although these are very public problems. In fact, denial has been the course of action to date. The league even sent out a release on Monday saying the replacement officials’ were “performing admirably.”
That has never been the case, and it was made painfully obvious to a national TV audience tuning in to watch Matt Ryan versus Peyton Manning. Instead, it watched an entertaining game marred by ignorance.
Arthur Blank watched it, too.
As Fox NFL rules analyst Mike Pereira, the former vice president of NFL officials, pointed out, the Falcons owner is on the league committee negotiating the officials’ lockout.
“Arthur … get the refs to the table tomorrow and get this done,” Pereira wrote Monday night.
If there was ever a time to throw the officials a life raft, Monday night provided all the necessary provocation.
The replacement officials are in way over their heads, and the water is rising.