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Fill-in refs raising concerns as NFL season looms

Associated Press Modified: September 3, 2012 at 3:31 am •  Published: September 3, 2012

Replacement officials probably can't start the regular season as poorly as they did the preseason.

At least, the NFL is hoping they don't.

In the very first exhibition game of 2012, referee Craig Ochoa announced that New Orleans won the coin toss. Except Arizona had.

Ochoa immediately made the correction, but that was the beginning of what has been a rocky ride.

Delays could be a common theme for NFL games once the regular season begins this week, and that's not even the biggest concern.

With no agreement with its locked-out referees union in sight, the league is planning to use replacements for at least the first week of the season. The new crews have been diligent, but a seamless adjustment is impossible in such a short time. Especially considering many of the replacements are going from supervising small college games to policing the sport's best athletes in front of deafening 75,000-strong crowds.

This all but promises more of the officiating mistakes that have punctuated otherwise-unimportant exhibition games. The questions — Can they keep the game safe? Can they keep up with the speed? Will they avoid game-changing errors? — wont' stop until the NFL and the regular refs reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

"These crews have officiated our games many, many times. So I think you know and respect and trust their level of expertise and the type of game they are going to call," New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said of the regular referees. "It's just like on a team if we say we're going to put five rookies in front of you and a bunch of first-year players catching the ball and running the football around you: You just don't have that same level of trust and confidence."

The NFL insists it does.

"Officiating is an imperfect science," Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "They're not going to be correct all the time, but we have systems in place to try to help."

The replacements the league is using aren't used to those systems. With major college refs staying loyal to their current responsibilities, the NFL had to recruit fill-ins from lower levels of the game where the rules are different, the crowds are small and the action unfolds at a slower pace.

"The replacement officials continue to improve every week as we continue to work intensively on their training. Overall, they are doing a good job," league spokesman Greg Aiello said.

Maybe so, but the gaffes have been glaring.

Penalties called on the wrong players.

Spots of the ball several yards off.

Incomplete or inaccurate explanations of on-field rulings.

Buffalo fans booed when a punt by the Bills was downed at the 4-yard line and the back judge nevertheless ruled the play a touchback. Coach Chan Gailey challenged, and the spot was changed.

In Denver, officials misinterpreted Broncos coach John Fox's attempt to challenge the spot of the ball after the 49ers recovered their own fumble. Fox was actually assessed a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for challenging the recovery before an NFL rep talked with the crew for several minutes on the sideline. The flag was picked up without explanation. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh was hollering for the penalty. The refs, at least temporarily, bought his argument.

Playing at Minnesota, San Diego coach Norv Turner had to throw two challenge flags after turnovers forced by his team were disallowed on the field but contradicted by video replays.

Aiello said the league "cast a wide net and invited applications from experienced college football officials at all levels." Ochoa's crew at the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 6 included those with experience in the Arena League, the major college conferences and the NCAA Division II and Division III levels. Ochoa previously worked in the Big Ten — and, yes, the women's Lingerie Football League.

So they know the sport, and they care enough about the profession to put themselves through the gantlet of officiating a typical NFL game.

"My concern is that the replacement referees get too cautious. In other words, the easiest way for them to disappear is to keep the flag in their pocket," said NBC television analyst Cris Collinsworth, a former receiver with the Bengals. "I think that even the players are starting to get a little sense of that right now, that maybe they can push the envelope just a little bit more than what they've done in the past. And if that's the case, then maybe we get players who get a little more aggressive than we would've seen otherwise."

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