This summer, however, on the mandate of the NCAA's officiating supervisors—of whom those from the five top conferences are all NFL officials—not a single current Football Bowl Subdivision official can be found among the 136 replacements signed and prepped by the NFL. Instead, the league staffed up by drawing from the high school ranks and lower divisions, including some officials who had retired or been dismissed. (At least the situation has offered one breakthrough: Line judge Shannon Eastin, of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, became the first female NFL official to work a game.)
The NFL has asked coaches and players not to speak to the media about the replacement officials. In case they do, the league supplied talking points on the subject. Among them: "No, we don't agree that coaches and players will play fast and loose with the rules if the regular officials are not working."
Then, on Aug. 5, as if on cue, replacement referee Craig Ochoa, formerly of the Lingerie Football League, went out before the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game between the Cardinals and the Saints and misidentified the winner of the coin flip.
A comedy of errors continued apace, ranging from an inexplicable holding penalty against Giants punt returner Jayron Hosley, to a touchback called after Bills special-teamer Ruvell Martin downed a punt at the four-yard line.
So bad was the first weekend of preseason that the NFLRA, which had circulated a list of 10 meaningful errors observed in the Aug. 9 Patriots-Saints tune-up, including a missed touchdown and an unflagged helmet-to-helmet hit, suddenly declined to do the same in Week 2. (Players get flagged for rubbing it in; refs, it seems, are above it.) Had they chimed in, they would have had plenty of material to work with. Before halftime of the Cowboys-Chargers warmup last Saturday, for instance, the replacements failed to return the ball to Dallas after a flagged helmet-to-helmet hit by San Diego safety Eric Weddle resulted in an interception by his teammate, Donald Butler. And this was after officials met for a lengthy pow-wow—a common sight lately—and subsequent booth replay.
Funny now, sure. In August. In the preseason. Even Patriots coach Bill Belichick mustered a chuckle when asked about the situation. Be certain, however: There will be no chuckling in September or, heaven forbid, January, if it gets that far.
One obvious explanation for so many missteps: NFL speed. "It's mind-blowing," says locked-out side judge Keith Parham, 44, a former Big East official who was a rookie last season. "And I officiated [Cardinals receiver] Larry Fitzgerald and [Jets cornerback] Darrelle Revis in college. Even linemen are moving at a fast pace. It's a blur."
That reality has sparked questions about how to prevent comedy (say, missed holds) from metastasizing into tragedy (head injuries). The NFL, through a spokesman, maintains that there is "more medical infrastructure in place than ever to protect players," pointing to the certified trainers watching from upstairs booths, the replacements' three months of training, and sidelines stacked with video monitors and officiating supervisors.
But it has struck the NFLPA and retired players alike as incongruous to rely on officials with no NFL experience, given commissioner Roger Goodell's strict safety regime, which included a memo last November calling on officials to serve as first responders by helping identify concussions.
Asked earlier this month by SI whether he was nervous about using replacements in the regular season, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith stressed that safety was a prime worry. He graded his concern as a 12—on a scale of 1 to 10.