Rarely has Week 3 been so important in the NFL.
Get through it without mayhem breaking out around the league and the replacement referees might start clearing their calendars for colder days. Have something happen that affects a game or injures a player and the real referees may soon be back wearing stripes.
The NFL is betting that it still wields the big hammer in its contract dispute with league officials, despite a Monday night game that nearly veered out of control. But it badly needs a Sunday without controversy to help quiet the growing criticism of fill-ins who clearly aren't ready for prime time.
To make sure it gets one, the message went out this week to coaches and players alike: Behave, or else.
Get out of line like Denver coach John Fox did while arguing with the officials in the Monday night game in Atlanta and expect flags, fines or even a suspension. Treat the referees like the scabs most players and coaches seem to believe they are, and expect there to be repercussions.
"There's a mob mentality that can take control if you let things get out of hand," Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president for game operations, told USA Today. "We never expect to see what occurred during the first half of the game at Atlanta on Monday happen on the field again."
That it's come to this shouldn't be a surprise, considering the best officials in the land were replaced by a bunch of fan boys just excited to be on the same field as their heroes. It's silly to even think they might be able to do the job, and even sillier to expect they could do it without drawing attention to their skill level.
The NFL is selling a substandard product. And the people who pay for that product are beginning to notice.
If they stuck around past midnight Monday on the East Coast when the seemingly interminable game in Atlanta finally came to an end, they would have heard former quarterback Steve Young use his turn at the microphone on ESPN to deliver a scathing attack on the NFL for treating the referee issue with impunity.
It might not have gone down well with a league that still indirectly funds his bank account, but Young scored some points for the real refs at the expense of the NFL.
"There's nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don't care," Young said. "Player safety? Doesn't matter in this case. Bringing in Division III officials? Doesn't matter. Because in the end, you're still going to watch the game."
Indeed, the NFL operates with the arrogance of a league that can do no wrong. Stadiums are for the most part full, the NFL dominates the airwaves, and the $9.3 billion in revenue the league took in last year only figures to rise.
A bigger deal for league executives this past week than getting a new contract for officials was getting one for Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks to carry the NFL Network and the NFL RedZone on their cable systems. That means the channel is now in 70 million of the country's approximately 115 million television homes, and will be an even bigger money-maker for the league.
What also helps the NFL in this dispute is that the referees — other than making the obvious case that they're better than the replacements — haven't exactly gotten a groundswell of support for their cause. It's hard for the average fan to feel sympathy for the plight of part-time workers making six-figure salaries complete with pensions, health insurance and other benefits.
But with players and coaches showing open disdain for the replacements, the dispute is starting to threaten the games themselves. Monday night, when Fox seemed to be trying to bully referees in a series of heated exchanges that delayed the game, was clearly an embarrassment to a league that continues to insist that it is not threatening the safety of its players or the integrity of the game by using the replacements.
The replacements are even being noticed in Las Vegas, where bookies are beginning to think about giving the home team an extra half point on the betting line because they believe the replacements are more easily influenced by fans to throw penalty flags against the visiting team. They're also setting higher point totals, partly because more pass interference penalties are being called by the replacements.
That's what makes this week's slate of games so crucial to both sides. The NFL already has a five-week schedule of games for the replacements, and could be drawing up plans for even more if things go smoothly. As in most labor disputes, the longer the replacements are out there, the worse things will get at the bargaining table for the real officials.
Ultimately, as Young pointed out, the NFL will do what it wants. Fans may not like the replacement referees, but they're not staying away from stadiums or turning off the TV because of them.
Unless something dramatic happens to change that equation, it's hard to bet against the most successful sports league in the land.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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