FLOWERY BRANCH — The NFL’s exhibition season had an inauspicious start when a replacement official flubbed the coin toss for the Pro Football Hall of Fame game in Canton on Sunday.
The referee said the New Orleans Saints won the toss and deferred. He quickly corrected himself and announced that Arizona had indeed won the toss.
When the Falcons host the Baltimore Ravens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Georgia Dome in their exhibition opener, replacement officials will call the game because of a labor dispute between the league and the NFL Referees Association.
Some replacement officials worked the Falcons’ Friday Night Lights event, some practices and the controlled practice with the Tennessee Titans in Dalton.
In a recent practice, cornerback Darrin Walls was called for a pass interference on wide receiver Kevin Cone by one of the replacement refs. Safety William Moore didn’t like the call and said, “We’re going to have a long season.”
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon chimed in, and said, “We want all of these calls explained to us in the meeting tonight in full detail.”
Some players don’t know what to make of the replacement referees.
“Regardless of who is out there calling the game you still have to play,” defensive end Lawrence Sidbury said. “They are going to call the game the way they are going to call it. There is nothing we can do. We just have to line up and play football.”
Veteran center Todd McClure seemed to share Sidbury’s sentiments.
“I don’t think we can concern ourselves with that at all,” McClure said. “We have to go out there and play the game. Whatever the calls are, that’s what they call. It shouldn’t be anything that we worry about as players. We can’t do anything about it.”
The NFLPA, the player’s union, is supporting the referees and believes that player safety will be jeopardized.
Over the past few years, the NFL has placed an emphasis on player safety by expanding penalties and fines for helmet-to-helmet contact, hits on defenseless receivers and roughing the quarterback.
“The NFL Players Association is concerned about the NFL’s decision to lock out professional referees and recruit scabs to serve as referees in NFL games for the 2012 season,” a NFLPA spokesman said in a statement. “In 2011, the NFL tasked officials with increased responsibilities in protecting player health and safety, and its search for scabs undermines that important function. Professional athletes require professional referees.”
The league last used replacement officials in 2001, but the labor situation was quickly settled after the Sept. 11 tragedy in New York.
The NFLRA heavily criticized the crew that worked the game in Canton.
“Several of the NFL Referee Association’s officials who grade for Division-I college conferences did a review of the Hall of Fame game,” said NFLRA counsel Michael Arnold in statement. “Multiple costly errors were evident. Numerous errors in field mechanics, game administration and even the coin toss negatively impacted the quality of the game.”
The NFLRA listed 10 material errors including a non-call on a touchdown, a holding call and a failure to call a touchback.
The two sides are apart on wages and pension benefits. The league has offered a five to 11 percent pay raise over a seven-year deal. The league notes that an official with five years of experience now makes $115,000. In 2018, that same official would make $183,000.
“We think we’ve been responsive on that and hopefully we can get something done,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.
The NFL has been training officials from the lower ranks of college football, some high officials and even one female, Shannon Eastin, is set to work the Green Bay at San Diego game on Thursday.
The league contends that it’s prepared to play the season with replacement officials if necessary.
“We obviously would like to get an agreement with our officials,” Goodell said recently on the NFL Network’s NFLAM show. “We have a great deal of respect for them and we’d like to get that done, but we have differences, not only economic differences but differences of how we continue to improve NFL officiating.”
The two sides reached an impasse back in May and the league decided to start training replacement officials, who are called scabs by hard-core union supporters. The league locked out the officials on June 3.
Goodell recently spent some time with the replacements.
“They’re excited and they’re working hard to make sure that they’re ready for the season and we’re going to do everything to make sure they’re prepared and ready to go,” Goodell said.
Mike Pereira, Fox television’s NFL rules analyst and former NFL official, believes the integrity of the game will be compromised with the replacement referees.
He was head of the officiating in 2001 when the NFL used replacement officials in Week 1 before an agreement was reached.
“The integrity of the game will be compromised when you put people out on the field who have no idea of the timing, rules or management of the game or player safety,” Pereira said in a recent radio interview. “Much like not seeing the best players, you won’t be seeing the best officiating. You’re going to have people that have never officiated player safety rules at this level before and that will lead to mistakes.”
Pereira notes that the current group of 120 union referees has more than 1,400 years of NFL officiating experience and that the replacement will have zero years of NFL experience.
“They need to get this settled,” Pereira said.
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–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog