This NFL ref stuff isn't for everyone

Replacement officials couldn't handle prime time, but they certainly made things interesting.

At some point in the very near future — maybe a quarter or two into Sunday's NFL games — we're guaranteed to hear the following:

Bring back the replacement refs.

Picking apart officiating is one of the pleasures of watching sports, an American pastime.

Most of the iconic moments in NFL history resulted in fans somewhere cursing the officials and throwing something at the TV — the Tuck Game, the Holy Roller, the Music City Miracle, the Immaculate Reception…

In the first three weeks of this season, some of the replacements did a surprisingly respectable job. Several games were played with minor hiccups at most. But on the biggest stage, in prime time, with all those TV cameras, the inexperience of the stand-ins was glaring.

Roger Goodell was talking on a conference call Thursday, as opposed to a news conference, so it was hard to tell if he kept a straight face when he said the gaffe at the end of the Green Bay-Seattle game "may have pushed the parties further along" in negotiations.

May have pushed? That was a full-fledged shove, cranking up the urgency to code red. The locked-out officials couldn't have scripted a better infomercial for their services. But that was only one of a slew of blown calls in that game, calls and non-calls that helped or hurt both teams.

The returning officials will make bad calls too. Lots of them. But those won't happen nearly as frequently as they did with the replacements, and the regulars will keep the games moving at the pace teams have come to expect, rather than convening for a midfield huddle every few snaps.

If this lockout did anything, it reminded people in and around the NFL that officiating isn't a job for everyone, and there's no substitute for experience.

"We still 'stink,' we're still 'terrible,' we still 'miss all the calls,'" returning referee Ed Hochuli said. "But at least now people realize that it's a pretty difficult job."

Too often, the replacements looked glassy-eyed and overwhelmed on the field — as any of us would — and the players and coaches took advantage of that at every turn.

"These guys had to be in a little bit of awe," NBC's Al Michaels said. "Like, 'Ohmygod, there's Tom Brady, there's Ray Lewis.' This wasn't Central Washington versus Colorado School of Mines."

Not everything about the lockout was a negative. The replacements added a layer of unpredictability to the games that somehow made Sundays even more intriguing, in a strange way improving upon already great sports theater.

People who love throwback jerseys got to watch some throwback football too, because that downfield contact between receivers and defensive backs was straight out of the 1970s. These officials were substitute teachers. Clearly, some teams built that into their defensive strategies, playing much more aggressively than they would with regular officials on the field, reasoning that the replacements can't throw a flag every down. And some games quickly got out of hand.

In other words, good thing the regulars are back for Sunday's game between the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos.

The lockout showed us — and the NFL — the value of good officials, even ones with whom we don't always agree.

Cris Collinsworth brings up another point. The NBC analyst was a receiver in the league in 1987, when the players went on strike. Suddenly on the outside looking in, he watched the replacement players struggle at first, but then start to get comfortable.

"After four games, people were caring less that we weren't there," he said. "Replacement players were gaining momentum, not losing it. People were starting to come to the games, Vegas was making lines on the games. The NFL won the battle."

That wasn't the case with the officials. Games got worse, the mistakes more appalling by the week.

So now the regulars are back, and everyone's happy that natural order has been restored.

"The honeymoon will probably last through the first quarter," Hochuli said.

Or maybe just through the flip of a quarter.