Holler: NFL can't afford officiating gaffes

Friday night's Vikings-Chargers game was a demonstration in overmatched officiating, something the NFL doesn't want to see happen in regular-season games on a regular basis. A multi-billion dollar industry can't afford high-profile mistakes affecting its product and fan base.

The last time the NFL and its officials were at odds to the point that they weren't on the field, it was Week 1 of the 2001 season. Both sides were huffing and puffing about protecting their own interests. After the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington D.C. took place, the two sides quickly came to an agreement – perhaps noting that there were much bigger issues in play than a union squabble between a league and those hired to keep order on the field.

There has been an age-old argument with umpires and referees. Whether it's in a Super Bowl or a beer-league softball game, those in charge of making the rulings – the only non-athletes allowed on the field – are often subject to criticism when their viewpoints differ from the views of partisan fans. Even "real" NFL officials take heat constantly, much less Division III and high school officials that have been marshaled together to fill the current void.

The talk remains tough. The sides would both appear to be dug in. But, guess what? A little more than 13 months ago, the NFL Players Association and the owners were dug in their respective foxholes and were ready for a nuclear winter of no football – or at least that was their battle cry. But, behind the scenes the wheels were in motion to get a deal done.

With each passing game, it's becoming clear that the replacement refs are in over their heads. Had the NFL sniped top college officials from the major BCS conferences to officiate their games, there may not have been as obvious a discrepancy in what they see and what they don't see. Nobody asks a violin player how long it took them to get good enough to get paid to play their instrument. Veteran NFL officials know the speed of the game, know what to look for and, for the most part, only throw flags when they see something obvious or flagrant.

The replacement refs have been overwhelmed by the speed of the game and their use of their penalty flags and interpretation of calls has been sporadic at best and abysmal at worst. Serial tweeter Chris Kluwe wasn't stating anything in his caustic recent tweets that wasn't obvious to anyone who saw Friday's game with San Diego. The Lex Hilliard fumble was visible to thousands of people hundreds of feet away, yet wasn't as obvious to any of the officials strategically placed throughout the field. It's clear there is something wrong, but the NFL won't discuss it, coaches and owners who don't want to get fined are turning a blind eye (or at least a muted voice) to it and players are reluctant to point fingers – even when it is too easy to do at times. Most everyone is adhering to Mafia code of "You didn't see nothin'. Keep movin'."

The truth is that, when the regular season starts on Wednesday, Sept. 5, expect to see the replacement officials back where they belong – officiating games in front of crowds of several hundred people.

No corporate entity wants to take a public beating. Major League Baseball has found ways to trip over its own clown shoes so many times in recent years, the distance in fan popularity of the NFL has made football the undisputed king of American sports. On Sunday, Oct. 28, MLB may be broadcasting a critical World Series game at the same time the NFL will be broadcasting an early-season game between New Orleans and Denver. You can bet more people will watch Drew Brees vs. Peyton Manning than watch the Artist Formerly Known as the Fall Classic. Protect The Shield.

The NFL has had few monstrous public relations missteps as opposed to the other major sports, which is why its lead in fan popularity continues to distance itself from others. Viewership records are being shattered and, as a result, the NFL's biggest worry is about increasing the must-see level of in-house entertainment while maintaining an attending fan base. That's a good problem to have. They've reached the mountaintop and need to maintain it. The way you maintain it is to avoid situations that can be a proverbial egg to the face of "The Shield."

If anything, the officiating of the preseason games has been like the games themselves – dominated and decided by backups. These games realistically don't mean anything. If a team goes 4-0, when the regular season starts, those records and stats don't count.

The NFL of 2012 is one that is so in the public consciousness that the league is actually becoming self-reflective. They are looking at protecting what they already have and not taking a backward step – Protect The Shield. To allow clearly inferior officiating when the results of the game are going to be part of the league's permanent record, you can bet that protecting the shield will have to take precedence. It didn't in 2001. It did in 2011. It will in 2012.


  • In May when the Miami Dolphins got their first on-field look at safety Tyrell Johnson, things were not going swimmingly. Viewed as the worst free-agent signing by the local Miami media, the Dolphins released Johnson Saturday in their first round of cuts – sending the clear message that he wasn't even close to being on the roster bubble.

  • It's unlikely the Vikings will be interested in picking up players that other teams view as being worthy of the first-round of cuts, but teams have until Monday to pare down their rosters.

    John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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