If you didn't know the NFL was using replacement referees during the Giants' season opener against Dallas Wednesday night at MetLife Stadium, you wouldn't have known the regular officials weren't working the game. And that's the highest compliment you can pay any officiating crew.
The NFL locked out its officials because of an impasse in contract negotiations with the NFL Referees Association, which covers more than 120 on-field officials. The two sides are in a dispute over salary, retirement benefits and operational issues. The league says its offer includes a salary of more than $200,000 for a veteran official by 2018, but the NFLRA says the proposal ultimately would reduce overall compensation.
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Several officiating snafus during the preseason raised concerns among fans and players that officiating crews culled mostly from the ranks of NCAA Division II and III might have a negative impact because of unfamiliarity with NFL rules and the speed of the pro game.
Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was critical during the preseason, telling reporters, "The replacement refs are bad. There's no way around it. None. It's like watching a Lamborghini roll around on eight-inch spare tires. Not good."
But there were no obvious problems or miscues by the crew headed by referee Jim Core. Core came in with eight years of experience at the Division II and II levels.
Of his seven-man crew, only umpire Bob Shoulders had Division I experience. Side judge Brian Stropolo was the least experienced, with only three years calling Division III games. Line judge Joshua Thurow had the most experience, with nine years in Divisions II and III.
"I would love to have the best officials on the field, but I have to look at this long term," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in an hourlong forum with fans of all 32 teams earlier in the day. "It'll get solved."
Goodell said the league wants to increase the number of officials to permit more flexibility in assigning crews and to devote more time to training officials, all of whom are part-time employees with other jobs. The league plans to continue evaluating each official on every play.
"Officiating is not perfect, but we believe that we have the best officials and that we can get better," he said. "That's what we're trying to do long term."
After the game, Goodell stood just inside the replacement refs' dressing room, shaking their hands as they came in.
Core's crew called 13 penalties for 66 yards on Dallas and four for 33 on the Giants. A replay of a fumble by the Giants' David Wilson clearly showed the turnover was correctly called, and the officials spotted the ball perfectly when the Giants stopped Dallas on a fourth-down run.
No foul officiating, no harm.