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Originally published September 15, 2012 at 5:20 PM | Page modified September 15, 2012 at 5:33 PM

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Enough talking; it's time for refs to return

The NFL should be embarrassed. Not because of the calls that were missed, per se, but because of the process.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

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The Seahawks stood 4 yards from the game-winning touchdown with three plays left, 30 seconds remaining and everyone waiting to see if Russell Wilson would begin his NFL career with a comeback victory when the whistle blew and the waiting began.

(This awkward, prolonged pause is put here to remind you of the NFL's replacement officials.)

Time stopped, a commercial break passed and the officials huddled to decide whether Seattle actually possessed the timeout it had just been granted.

(Cue the "Jeopardy!" music.)

No, Seattle shouldn't have been given that timeout, but yes, the Seahawks were told they had it, so it was granted. Confused? You should be. It was a mess, and while that didn't decide Sunday's game, it diluted the drama and underscored a problem of the league's labor dispute with its regular referees.

The NFL should be embarrassed. Not because of the calls that were missed, per se, but because of the process. This league did not become the most popular sport in the country by having officials group-think their way through a game.

It is big business, this sport that is tailor-made for advertisers with breaks in between series, the pause between plays, and yet the league is engaged in a staring contest with the men who govern the flow of play.

I'm not going to presume to say who is right and who is wrong in this labor dispute, who is asking too much or who is giving too little. Regular officials can kick calls every bit as well as a replacement, but in terms of revenue, the league is fighting over the equivalent of the spare change that falls into the couch with a group of people who help make their product so palatable to consumers.

Professional football is entertainment, and watching officials talk is not entertaining. It's CSPAN, and these replacement officials talk and talk and talk and then they blow the whistle and talk some more, occasionally even managing to correctly identify the number of the player who committed the penalty.

Seattle's game in Arizona lasted 3 hours, 36 minutes, which is longer than any regular-season game the Seahawks have played since 2007. In fact, only three games since 2003 have taken longer, and all three of those games were decided in overtime.

But last week, referees huddled up almost as often as the offense to talk about what happened and decide what to do. And while it's better to be right than fast, there's something to be said for the ability to be both. One weekend made it clear that the replacement officials have nowhere near the command of the game-operating manual as the regular guys like Mike Carey and Ed Hochuli.

This is significant. There are a ton of sticky little rules that make a ton of difference in an NFL game. Like the fact that Seattle should have been charged its final timeout of the game when Doug Baldwin was injured in his diving attempt at a touchdown catch in the final minute of last week's game in Arizona.

In fact, the referee announced Seattle was charged that final timeout only to have an official subsequently tell Seahawks coach Pete Carroll that the timeout had been restored.

And when Seattle called that timeout the Seahawks were told they had, it cued a discussion that dragged on longer than a timeout ever would have. And it's that debate — far more than whether the call was right or wrong — that should scare the NFL.

The nit-picky little details are important. Very important. NFL games so often come down to a single possession, and the outcomes are way too important to be governed by a bunch of guys getting together to play the equivalent of "Marco Polo" to hone in on a correct ruling.

The question isn't how much it would cost the NFL to settle the issue with referees, but the expense to the product if it doesn't.

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About Danny O'Neil

Danny O'Neil will comment on issues, events and personalities in the NFL. His column will appear on Sundays during the regular season. He also posts most days on the Seahawks Blog. | 206-464-2364


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