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Cook: For most part, replacement officials go unnoticed

Friday, August 31, 2001

If you are into watching NFL officials -- and who isn't these days? -- you will remember the one blatant blown call in the Steelers-Buffalo Bills game last night. Replacement referee Randal Beesley was dead wrong in the third quarter when he ruled Bills quarterback Travis Brown down by contact after a sack by safety Myron Bell, nullifying what clearly was a fumble.

Surely, you will remember umpire David Hettema getting hit in the face with a pass by Bills quarterback Alex Van Pelt in the second quarter. If you weren't at Heinz Field to watch the Steelers' 20-0 victory, you had to see it again and again on SportsCenter. It really was comical. It's not that Hettema was in such bad position. He just wasn't very nimble getting out of the way of the ball, which probably would have gone to wide receiver Jeremy McDaniel for a long gain.

It might even be enough to make you do something you never thought you would do in a million years:

Long for the return of the regular NFL zebras.

Easy.

If you ask me, the replacement officials -- it's popular to call them "scabs" in this town, isn't it? -- didn't look much different from the regular guys. In some ways, they were better. They didn't need even one of those tedious, annoying huddles to get their story straight.

Yes, Bill Cowher wasn't thrilled when Beesley missed Brown's fumble. And yes, the crowd booed loud and long. But Cowher and the fans never are going to be happy when a call goes against their team. That's the nature of coaches and fans. They remember only the bad calls.

That's why the general sentiment around the NFL seems to be that the replacement officials can't be any worse than the regular ones.

At least on this night, they weren't.

"I thought they did fine. I really did," Cowher said.

"I got mad at them a couple of times just like I do with the regular guys. I thought the one whistle was a little quick. I tried to get [Beesley's] attention, but he was pretty good about it. He never looked over. He never acknowledged me ...

"They looked just like the regular referees on Sunday."

It was easy for Cowher to laugh after an impressive win, one that inspires hope going into the season. He won't be so generous with the referee if a similar call costs the Steelers, say, the opener Sept. 9 in Jacksonville.

Hey, it could happen.

But it could happen with regular officials or replacements.

You might not like to admit it, but officials are human, too.

The NFL, back in the days before it fought with its officials' union, boasted it had the best officiating in all of sports and claimed a 99.85 percent accuracy rate on calls last season. You'll forgive Cowher if he thinks all 0.15 percent of the mistakes went against the Steelers. Didn't he receive three letters of apology from the league office after blown calls?

Mistakes such as the ones the Steelers are convinced cost them games against the Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles are just one reason it's hard to side with the locked-out regulars, no matter how pro-labor you might be. Their salary demands are outrageous. They want to be paid like the full-time baseball, hockey and basketball officials even though their jobs aren't full time.

They aren't worth it even if they are the best at what they do.

The sooner the union realizes that, the better off everyone will be.

The games will go on one way or the other. The NFL staged three games in 1987 with replacement players, didn't it? Of course, it's going to play with replacement officials if it has to.

There were reports yesterday the league increased its guarantee to the replacement guys from two games at $2,000 per game to four games -- whether they work or not. The move clearly turned up the heat on the regulars but not nearly as much as what happened at Heinz Field.

Aside from Beesley's blunder, the replacement crew did just fine.

It was easy for Beesley to call a personal foul penalty on Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith in the first quarter. He ripped off Bills quarterback Rob Johnson's helmet by the facemask on a sack.

It wasn't so easy for the officials to get a false start/offside call right early in the second quarter. The Bills' defensive line moved just about the time the Steelers' offensive linemen flinched. Three of the officials briefly -- repeat, briefly -- gathered as Cowher inched on the field, just in case his interpretation of the rule book was needed. It wasn't. The officials correctly called the Bills for encroachment in the neutral zone.

It's just a shame Beesley missed Brown's fumble.

Then again, it wouldn't have been an NFL game without at least one bad call, would it?

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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