REF Replacements Take NFL Spotlight

Wednesday, August 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The NFL's first job action in 14 years means replacement officials on the field for exhibition games and increased concerns about player safety.

Just as in 1987, when the NFL used replacement players for three regular-season contests, the games will go on.

Ten officials will work each game this weekend, beginning Thursday night. They will be rotated in and out, both to provide a break and determine who are the best. League officiating supervisors also will serve as on-field officials, perhaps in more than one game each.

Identifying the people blowing whistles and throwing flags will be virtually impossible after the regular officials were locked out by the NFL following stalled contract negotiations.

Some players fear avoiding injuries could be more difficult, as well.

``I think pro games should be officiated by professionals,'' Detroit defensive end Robert Porcher said as the Lions prepared for Thursday night's game against Tennessee.

Asked if he considered officials from NFL Europe and the Arena League to be professionals, he added, ``I don't see too many players from those leagues in the NFL.''

The schedule begins Thursday with five other games: Buffalo at Pittsburgh, the New York Jets at Philadelphia, Indianapolis at Cincinnati, Washington at New England, and Jacksonville at Dallas.

On Friday, it's the New York Giants at Baltimore in an afternoon game, followed by Minnesota at Miami, Tampa Bay at Atlanta, Cleveland at Carolina, Kansas City at St. Louis, Green Bay at Oakland, San Francisco at Denver, and San Diego at Arizona.

Saturday, it's New Orleans at Seattle to close out the preseason.

Vikings guard Corbin Lacina voiced the concerns of his peers by admitting, ``There are going to be safety issues.''

``There are things with the quarterback _ how long a guy's been hit or whether he's in the grasp,'' Lacina said. ``There are things on the line _ high-low blocks. There are things on defense, whether a guy is hit in the head.

``It moves fast. You have to be trained to handle it, so that's a concern.''

In addition to turning to NFL Europe and Arena Football, the NFL will be using some college officials, although several conferences balked at allowing on-field officials to work NFL games.

Steelers tackle Wayne Gandy wonders how well the college refs and linesmen will adapt.

``For safety, these guys are probably even tougher (than the NFL officials),'' Gandy said. ``We get away with a couple of little things out there, hits to the back. Up here, you can hit somebody in the face mask and maybe get a warning. But in college, if you hit somebody in the face mask, they throw a flag. They don't even give you a warning.''

Added Giants guard Glenn Parker: ``I don't think the rule book will be a problem. I think the speed of the game will be the problem for these guys. Ask any player who went back to his first college game after being in the pros, and he'll say he couldn't believe how slow it was. It's going to be a big step up in the speed department for them.''

Several coaches emphasized that who is blowing the whistle shouldn't have an impact on the players' performances. Of course, NFL coaches always try to eliminate preoccupations and excuses _ and poor officiating can be a whopper of a distraction.

``It's not going to affect us,'' Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. ``These guys have been officiating college ball for a long time. I'm sure they'll do a good job.''

Will Shanahan go easier on the officials than normal?

``I'm nice to all these guys,'' he said with a laugh, then turned serious. ``Yeah, I think so. They're doing the best job they can, but I'll be surprised if they don't do a great job. It's just like when you're coaching. If you're coaching at the Division I level, the Division II level, you've got to go out there and do the job.''

Giants coach Jim Fassel instructed his players to ignore the officiating situation.

``Men, don't ever get it in your mind that the officials are going to win and lose the game for us,'' he said. ``We are going to do it. We control that. I don't want to hear anyone talking about that.''