NFL: How long will welcome mat be out for refs?
That white horse the regular NFL officials are riding in on could throw a shoe very quickly.
Welcomed back warmly Thursday night by players, coaches and fans after the debacle that was replacement refereeing, the regulars will be under unprecedented scrutiny this weekend. Once they make calls that anger someone, things will really be normal again in pro football.
Normal might be good considering the angst of the first three weeks. Don't forget, though, that players and coaches still will be looking for an edge, and even with all the referees, umpires, linesmen and judges they are accustomed to back on the field, controversy — if not chaos — is one whistle away.
That controversy didn't come Thursday in Baltimore, not even after the Ravens' Paul Kruger was penalized for a late hit that allowed Cleveland one more chance to tie the game. There were no complaints because it was the proper call, and a desperation pass into the end zone — sounds familiar, doesn't it? — sailed well out of bounds, making for a peaceful ending.
That won't always be the case, of course, something for everyone to keep in mind when questionable calls come along. And they will.
Asked about a honeymoon period for the returning officials, Giants placekicker Lawrence Tynes said, "There will be rousing applause and then come the second or third quarter, they will be back to being 'the officials.'"
Titans coach Mike Munchak was just as succinct.
"I don't think there is one," he said when asked about a grace period for the regulars. "We're playing a game on Sunday. We need to do our job, they need to do theirs. And hopefully, theirs won't affect ours."
That is impossible. As became so clear with the replacements, the work of on-field officials is a critical piece of the NFL.
Football might be the most difficult team sport to officiate, although hockey referees and linesmen obviously also need to be excellent skaters. The NFL has rules and addendums to them, plus interpretations and judgment calls. There are 112 pages in the league's rulebook.
Plus, 22 players must be watched by seven officials, with each player seeking an advantage over his opponent. Often that edge comes through an illegal tactic. Not all of those tactics get spotted.
"When the real refs were there, people complained about them, too," Giants defensive tackle Rocky Bernard said. "But I think it will hold the league more accountable with those guys here."
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, one of the NFL's best players for the past 13 seasons, won't exactly be hugging the regulars. But he is eager to see them Sunday when Denver hosts Oakland.
"I think the most frustrating thing is I have this thing with the regular officials where I would talk to them before the game or during the game. Most of them, I know their names or whatever," Bailey said. The replacements "wanted no part of communicating with me. I mean, I would talk to them, they'd just look at me like I'm stupid. Some of them probably don't even know half the players. That kind of messes you up a little bit because you have no relationship with them whatsoever. And they don't want to build anything because they know they're in and out."
With the veteran officials back in, some players are concerned about their conditioning. Although referees and umpires don't run all that much, side and back judges and other officials sometimes must keep up with — or stay close enough to — the likes of Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson to make the correct call.
"I know (veteran ref) Ed Hochuli came out and said something about they've been preparing for this moment, so they'll be ready to go," Giants DE Justin Tuck said. "As players we need that preseason warm-up to take the rust off. I think referees do, too. So It's kind of encouraging to see them come out and say they've been preparing for it."
What they never could have been prepared for was the returning hero reception they got in Baltimore. They understand there is absolutely no chance that will last.
"You're not really beloved by the public. You're tolerated. And to see that type of reception that our guys got (Thursday) was really heartwarming," said line judge Jeff Bergman. "After the euphoria of the moment wears off, probably sometime early in the second quarter, it'll be back to regular NFL football mode. Players will be questioning our judgment, our ancestry. Coaches will be screaming at us. And it'll be life as back to normal on Sundays."