Now that the regular NFL officials made their point, earned their money and contributed to the hysteria that engulfed the first three weeks of the season, they get what they wanted:
They get to be treated like professionals.
Careful what you ask for, Mr. Official, because you're about to get it. Want more money? You're getting it. More respect? Getting that, too.
But with all of that should come, will come, more scrutiny. NFL officials haven't exactly worked in anonymity in recent years -- their names and field assignments have been printed on the official statistics handed out to media at games -- but until now that section was an afterthought. Maybe we in the media would scan the names to see if our game was getting a star like heavily muscled Ed Hochuli ... or that clown who oversaw the 2008 disaster between San Diego and Denver, a guy whose name is, um, Ed Hochuli.
Before this labor impasse established the importance of having the best officiating available -- and clearly defined the difference between a replacement and the real thing -- we would sit in the press box before kickoff and we would look at the officials' names. But it didn't matter. You as readers didn't care, so we in the media didn't care. Not unless someone screwed up as badly as Ed Hochuli screwed up that 2008 game in Denver, when Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler fumbled deep in San Diego territory but Hochuli misread it as an incompletion. He whistled the play dead, allowing Denver to retain possession. The Broncos scored the winning points with 24 seconds left.
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If something atrocious like that happened, OK, the errant official got his name in the story. Otherwise, officials floated under the radar. Maybe a blown call in the second quarter stopped a drive, or extended it. At the time it seemed like a big deal, but by the end of the game, not so much. A lot happened after that -- big plays made by actual players, and the public prefers reading about actual players. Truth be told, the media prefers writing about them, too. So that blown call in the second quarter? We sort of let it slide.
Not anymore, Mr. Official.
You wanted to be treated like big boys, and given how much the NFL suffered in your absence, apparently you deserve to be treated like big boys -- so that's the way it's going to be. You're now part of the story. To whom much is given, much is expected.
So we expect a lot. At least, we better. Or maybe we won't, not after a week or two of watching the officials closely, really closely, too closely, and then deciding that's not fun at all. They're just officials, right?
Maybe this storyline will pass like so many of them do, replaced by another flavor of the month. A couple years from now, we'll look back on that replacement official nonsense from 2012 and wonder why we cared so much. It was like the Y2K bug or something. Lots of discussion, no real impact. Right?
Wrong. I hope so, anyway. For three weeks, this was all we heard about in the NFL. Any idea who's leading the league in rushing? Three games into the season, who are the top MVP candidates? Haven't heard much about Ndamukong Suh or James Harrison. Are they playing nice?
Nobody knows, because nobody cares. For three weeks it has been all officials, all the time, and for that I blame lots of folks. The replacement refs, whose incompetence led to a series of misadventures. The media, me included but also mean-spirited TV bullies like Al Michaels, for fixating on this storyline. NFL owners and commissioner Roger Goodell for allowing the integrity of their game to be blown about by that replacement official from the Lingerie Football League.
And I blame the regular officials themselves, locked out but not innocent victims. Bargaining requires something of both sides, so deals are reached -- or not -- thanks to both parties. And once a deal wasn't made in time for the regular season, the regular refs used their influence in the college game to make sure competent replacements weren't available to the NFL.
That was their right as union members trying to strengthen their position, but you know what? I'm not a member of their union. That didn't help me, or you, at all. As far as you and I are concerned, the regular refs took a bad situation and made it worse by pushing the NFL into a corner with Lingerie League officials and the side judge whose Facebook page outed him as a Saints fan, even as he was preparing to officiate a Saints game.
This thing was a joke from Day 1, and the joke was on us, and the joke was told, in part, by the officials who are back in business. They bargained hard and they won. They made Roger Goodell blink, and most of the time I would be fine with that. Talk about a bully? Roger Goodell is the worst kind, the kind who judges, punishes and then shoots down the appeal. A loss for Goodell is a win for good, most of the time.
But not this time. This time, the only winner in the standoff between the NFL and the officials was the officials. They wanted a lot, and they got it. They earned it. Congratulations to them for determining their worth, and that's a sincere statement.
But so is this: The stakes just went up. Officials -- the right officials -- are obviously an integral part of the NFL. They will be paid as such. They will be considered as such.
They better be damn good.
And when they're not, they better be damn accountable.