After the Ravens lost in dramatic fashion to the Eagles on Sunday, a game that included yet another controversial call by the replacement officials, Baltimore's All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis said enough was enough.
"The time is now," he said. "I just know teams and the league are being affected by it. Get the regular referees in here."
Lewis is right. It's time for the NFL to get back to the bargaining table with its locked-out officials' union, hammer out a deal, and end a labor standoff that is threatening the league's integrity.
In the Ravens' game, it was a questionable offensive pass-interference call that negated a Joe Flacco touchdown pass. In the Giants' opener against the Cowboys, it was a non-call on defensive holding that prevented Victor Cruz from hauling in a would-be touchdown pass.
Then, in an embarrassing nationally televised game Monday night between the Falcons and Broncos, it was a series of missteps by the replacement refs that led to several botched calls during a nearly four-hour game that included a first quarter that lasted a full hour.
The league and the officials' union have been at odds for months over a labor agreement that has now spilled over into the regular season and shows no signs of ending. But with frustration mounting for players, coaches and fans alike, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell must now lead the way back to the negotiating table and work out a deal to bring the regular officials back.
Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka put it best Tuesday, using just one sentence to describe what's wrong with the situation:
"There's no doubt the integrity of the game is being compromised by not having the regular officials out there," he said.
Not much else needs to be said. If the NFL is fielding a product that's supposed to be at the highest level of the sport, then they're doing a disservice to everyone by not figuring out a way to get the officials back in. Yes, there are meaningful differences between the two sides in trying to reach an agreement. The league wants to add more officials to its roster, but hasn't increased the pool of money allocated to the officials' satisfaction. And the officials want to preserve a pension plan that the league wants to gradually eliminate.
It is a mostly intractable labor situation like many others. But unlike most, it has a trickle-down effect that affects millions of people who hold the NFL dear to their hearts. That's not to say that the regular officials don't blow calls. They do, and they're rightly criticized for them. But with the NFL using a clearly inferior group of officials, culled mostly from low-level college leagues, the games are being negatively impacted.
The replacements are doing the best they can. And in many instances, their performance has been beyond expectations, especially when you consider the huge leap in terms of the quality of competition the NFL presents. But in too many cases, the officials are simply overmatched, which is completely understandable based on their compressed training schedule.
The longer this goes, the more the imperfections show.
Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young was particularly elegant about the officiating mess after Monday night's Denver-Atlanta game, suggesting that fans' insatiable demand for the game has provided cover for a league he contends does not care enough about the officiating.
"The bottom line is they don't care," the ESPN analyst said. "Player safety doesn't matter in this case. Bring in the Division III officials -- it doesn't matter. In the end, you're still going to watch the game, we're going to all complain and moan and gripe but . . . it doesn't matter. Go ahead, gripe all they want. I'm going to rest. Let them eat cake."
Young cleverly invoked an ill-fated suggestion Marie Antoinette once made to an increasingly restless population preceding the French Revolution. Perhaps the NFL's king will pay heed to Young's suggestion and find a way to restore order to the league's officiating situation.
Enough with the replacement refs. It is time for Goodell to end the impasses and make a deal so he can restore the integrity of his sport.