The third team on the field for the National Football League’s season opener was under almost as much scrutiny as the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.
The crew of replacement officials emerged without any of the gaffes, blown calls or confusion that led to criticism from players, coaches, fans and the media during the preseason.
Even though the Cowboys held on for a 24-17 win over the Giants last night in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Dallas’ offense made more mental mistakes than the seven-man crew of replacement referees. Of the Cowboys’ game-high 13 penalties for 86 yards, seven were for false starts or delay of game.
The defending Super Bowl-champion Giants were whistled for four penalties for 33 yards. Giants quarterback Eli Manning said he didn’t notice any significant difference having the replacement referees working last night’s game.
“You’re going to get some calls, you’re not going to get some calls,” Manning said. “That’s part of it.”
Giants receiver Victor Cruz offered one complaint after the game, saying the officials didn’t call a penalty on the Cowboys when he thought he was held on a third-down pass play from the Dallas 4-yard line in the second quarter. The Giants settled for a field goal on the drive.
“I felt I got grabbed a little bit more than the usual, but you can’t have any excuses,” Cruz said.
The NFL and its 120 part-time officials have been unable to agree on a new contract, with differences on pay, pensions and operational issues. The league locked out the officials in June and the latest round of negotiations was ended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Sept. 1.
Without regular officials such as Ed Hochuli or Gene Steratore, the NFL used replacements during its preseason games. Most of those had only experience below the highest level of college football and many were criticized for missed or inaccurate calls. Only one of last night’s officials had worked a game at college football’s highest level, Division I.
The Giants experienced mistakes by the replacements during the preseason, most notably in their 6-3 win over the New England Patriots on Aug. 29.
The referees mistakenly attributed multiple fouls after a second-quarter punt and needed several minutes of deliberation among themselves and then with both coaches to determine and explain the proper ruling. Before the Giants attempted the punt a second time, the officiating crew announced a correction on the reporting of the foul, drawing further jeers from the MetLife Stadium Giants-record crowd of 82,287 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Replays of those gaffes and the confused referees quickly made the rounds on multiple websites.
Aside from a blown call by a replacement referee that may determine a regular-season game, others have said they are worried about the effect on player safety.
“My concern is that the replacement referees get too cautious,” said former NFL receiver Cris Collinsworth, who’s now an analyst for NBC. “The easiest way for them to disappear is to keep the flag in their pocket. If that’s the case then maybe we get players that get a little more aggressive than we would’ve seen otherwise.”
The 17 penalties called last night were the most in a season opener since 2005, when the Patriots and Oakland Raiders drew a combined 23 penalties for 195 yards. The Raiders totaled 16 penalties for a loss of 149 yards.
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