|Friday, August 31
No news good news for NFL
After seven uneventful preseason games with replacement officials, the NFL is gaining confidence that it has the upper hand in negotiations with the regulars.
The Baltimore Ravens' 38-9 victory over the New York Giants on Friday was the latest to be concluded without any major officiating problems -- a blown call here and there, but nothing that might not occur with regular officials in the regular season.
There were six games Thursday night without any gaffes that might have put pressure on the league to soften its negotiating stance with the regular season little more than a week away.
There are few signs of that.
In fact, it's the opposite, even though NFL executives concede that things will probably get dicier when the results count and the speed of the game picks up.
But the pressure seems to be on the locked-out members of the NFL Referees Association.
The NFL has doubled its guarantee to each of the replacement officials from two games to four at $2,000 a game -- if the dispute is settled or not.
And a top NFL official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that, after talks broke off last week, the league committed itself to going deep into the season with replacements if the union doesn't substantially reduce its contract demands -- about 50-75 percent higher than the NFL's current offer, which doubles salaries by 2003.
Tom Condon, the chief negotiator for the officials, said Friday he had been in contact with Jeff Pash, his NFL counterpart and hoped to negotiate in person soon. League officials said the pair talked by telephone for an hour Thursday night with little progress.
"I didn't see any games, so I can't really comment on the officiating," Condon said.
Others were glad to comment, including players, owners, even some of the officials, although the league did not identify them other than by name, number and college.
Most were recruited by NFL officiating supervisors who also are serving as field officials and the result is some homogenous crews. One is made up mostly of Alabamans headed by Ron Baynes, and another is mostly Californians picked and led by Mike Pereira, the league's supervisor of officials.
"It was a great experience," said Ernie Briggs, who refereed the Eagles-Jets game, then did the first and third quarters of the Giants-Ravens 13 hours later.
"This is where we go to get our replacements when we have turnover in our officials," Dallas owner Jerry Jones said. "You'll see the majority of these officials here in the NFL. It's not a step for them to come in here, freshen up on the NFL rules and do a good job."
The trend to stay away from controversial calls continued Friday in the Giants-Ravens game.
In the first quarter, replays showed that the officials clearly missed a block in the back on a punt return by Baltimore's Jermaine Lewis. Giants' coach Jim Fassel was shown talking about it to Larry Upson, the supervisor running that crew.
But the officials, who had never before worked together as a crew, exhibited professional teamwork on another first-quarter play. Baltimore's Shannon Sharpe was initially given credit for a catch on third down, but two other officials rushed to the scene and correctly changed the call to an incomplete pass.
There were some minor mistakes in Friday night's games.
On the final play of the first half in the Tampa Bay-Atlanta game, the officials correctly called a running-into-the-kicker penalty on Tampa's Dwight Smith against Atlanta's Jay Feely after he missed a 41-yard field goal. With no time on the clock, Feely got to kick again, but the official forgot to mark off the 5-yard penalty. Feely kicked again from 41 yards and made it to give Falcons a 16-7 lead at the half.
In St. Louis, referee Mack Gentry made his calls college style, simply calling the penalty on "offense" or "defense" without the number. He also had to be shown how to get under the hood to view a replay by league supervisor Jim Daopoulous.
Later, Gentry had trouble with his microphone, keeping it turned on when it should have been off at the two-minute warning, then forgetting to turn it on when he announced the call had been upheld after the replay.