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September 25, 2012

Perception is refs' real problem

What sort of column would this be if the Alabama-Auburn game ever ended with the sort of controversy that accompanied the conclusion of the NFL Monday Night game between Green Bay and Seattle?

It's a trick question, of course. If an Alabama-Auburn game ever ended on a Hail Mary pass into a mob of receivers and defenders with offensive pass interference going unnoticed and a mad scramble resulting in a touchdown that probably should have been an interception instead, there would be no columns. Regardless of which side was the beneficiary, there would only be a long wait in an underground shelter, waiting for the riots to subside.

That's the nature of the game. There have been controversial endings in the Alabama-Auburn game before. Mention the name "Curtis Brown" to any Alabama fan and the automatic response will be, "He was in."

There are Auburn fans who will attest that there was holding on Kenny Stabler's run in the mud in 1967 and will contend further that Alabama has not been called for holding a single time ever since.

The point is that there have been controversial calls and bad calls in football since long before the current contretemps between the NFL and its "regular" referees. The call that ended the Monday night game wasn't the worst ever. It wasn't even close. The worst calls are the fairly easy ones that officials inexplicably don't get right, like the famous onside kick call in the 2006 Oklahoma-Oregon game (which actually may have been the true worst of all time).

Monday night's call wasn't easy. It was tough. Yes, Seattle's Golden Tate should have been called for offensive pass interference for the two-handed shove that cleared the space for him to leap for the ball. But once that happened and the concept of "simultaneous possession" came straight out of "The Exorcist" and onto CenturyLink Field, it became a tough call, a split-second scrum that wouldn't be easy for any refs to sort out, even if they hadn't been pastry chefs and taxi drivers a week before.

Coaches get angry at regular officials, too. Nick Saban did not go to the extremes of his mentor, Bill Belichick, who grabbed an official after Sunday night's Patriots-Ravens game, which was the Biggest Debacle Ever until the next game came along. But Saban was pretty vocal in his displeasure about an unsportsmanlike conduct call in the Florida Atlantic game, and wasn't shy about expressing it.

The real problem for the replacement referees is not performance. It is perception.

The more that players and coaches and commentators say that the replacements have lost control of the game, the harder it actually is for them to control the game. Every call is scrutinized and dissected, and that would be difficult even for regular referees to withstand.

Eventually, there will be a settlement in the labor dispute, the veterans will return and the complaints will be the same ones we have heard for years. There will also be endless debate on whether these first weeks affected playoff chances for the Patriots or the Packers. Clearly, it has made an impact in a multibillion industry, but it could have been worse. It could have happened in the Alabama-Auburn game.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.




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