Phil Loadholt was given three options to choose from regarding the impact on the NFL if there is no labor resolution and the league goes forward with its plans to use replacement officials in its regular-season games next week.
A, "The game will suffer greatly."
B, "Marginal difference."
C, "The game will be just fine."
Like most people who have witnessed the preseason and aren't named Roger Goodell, Loadholt thought for about .004 seconds before rendering his verdict.
"The game will suffer greatly," the Vikings right tackle said.
Loadholt was one of five Vikings I surveyed as part of a Sporting News poll of 146 players from 29 teams. Cornerback Chris Carr, who said "marginal difference," was another. The other three agreed with Loadholt by choosing "the game will suffer greatly," but chose to keep their answers anonymous.
"Personally," Loadholt said, "I just don't know if the guys who we have officiating now know what they're doing. They don't seem real qualified to me."
Loadholt's tone wasn't mean-spirited. It was more matter-of-fact. Sort of like saying, "I don't think those mall cops could have found Bin Laden."
Of those 146 players, 90.4 percent (132) said the games would be affected negatively. Only 14 said the game would be just fine.
As expected, Week 3 of the preseason served as the wake-up head slap to the realization that the NFL might actually go through with this ill-suited plan. All the blown judgment calls, the misapplications of the rules and the general confusion that were dismissed earlier in the preseason are now standing within a week of the Sept. 5 season opener.
Naturally, more players and coaches are starting to go public with their concerns and disgust.
After a particularly embarrassing performance by the replacement officials in Friday night's game at Mall of America Field, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe tweeted: "The NFL really needs to kiss and make up with the refs. These replacements are horrible. Frankly, it's kind of embarrassing."
A day earlier, Bears kicker Robbie Gould was watching the Titans and Cardinals on television when he tweeted that the officials were "clueless." After the game, Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray referred to the crew as "the Three Stooges."
The replacement officials are doing their best, but were recruited from officiating jobs at small colleges, junior colleges, high schools and low-level professional leagues. Goodell, the NFL commissioner, argues that they have been trained to officiate in the NFL, but that training included all of two months.
"We think they'll do a very credible job," Goodell said.
That statement is being laughed at throughout the league. And it should be. The officiating has been embarrassing, particularly for a multibillion-dollar outfit that is always bragging about the image of its precious "shield."
So far, the players who have spoken out haven't been fined.
"It was more recommended that we don't talk about it," Kluwe said. "It wasn't, 'Hey, don't talk about this or we'll fine you.' But it's one of those things where all you have to do is just look out there. It's like the difference between having a high school guy playing in the NFL vs. an NFL guy playing in the NFL. These guys are trying as hard as they can. But they're not used to the speed of the game, so they're missing a lot of stuff."
What we're all discovering is the regular officials were a lot better than we thought. Their judgment calls, while not perfect, are at least respectable. Their knowledge of the NFL's litany of rules also is infinitely better, obviously.
Also, some, including Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, have complained that the replacement officials don't fully understand some of the player-safety rules that have been put in place. That should be of particular concern for a league that wants everyone to believe it has made player safety one of its highest priorities.
Obviously, there's still time to get this all worked out. Goodell has said the regular officials would need seven to 10 days to get ready for the season, but it's a good bet the officials have been staying sharp enough to step in if there's the usual 11th-hour agreement next week.
"I don't think the league can afford to have mistakes like this [in the regular season]," Kluwe said. "Look at last year. The Giants, the eventual Super Bowl champs, they were one game from not making the playoffs. So if you get one bad call, the entire season is different."
In other words, Mr. Goodell, for the good of the so-called "shield," fix this mess now.
Mark Craig • firstname.lastname@example.org