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Christopher L. Gasper

NFL’s replacement refs a complete joke

The Patriots’ Bill Belichick (above) and the Ravens’ John Harbaugh spent a lot of time Sunday appealing to the refs.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Patriots’ Bill Belichick (above) and the Ravens’ John Harbaugh spent a lot of time Sunday appealing to the refs.

The NFL can put a gag order on coaches and players. It can issue autocratic memos instructing them to ignore the officiating blunders around them. It can levy fines. But unless the league blindfolds everyone who watches its games, it can’t do what it desperately wants to — conceal the farce that the use of replacement officials has become.

The NFL keeps trying to tell us that the replacement officials will get better the more exposure they have to the NFL game. Week 3, which featured more procedural drama than a “CSI:” series, was proof that the replacement officials are just getting exposed the longer they’re officiating NFL games.

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We have reached the tipping point with substitute officials, as players and coaches around the league have reached their breaking point.

The current guys in stripes are overmatched and underqualified, and, despite their best efforts, they’re tarnishing the NFL product. There is distrust and disrespect among the coaches and players in the league who have worked exceptionally hard to reach the pinnacle of their profession in a league in which games, and livelihoods, can be determined by the slimmest of margins.

The takeaway image from the weekend in whistle-blower dissatisfaction is Patriots coach Bill Belichick grabbing the arm of a replacement official to try to get an explanation as to whether Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker’s 27-yard field goal to beat the Patriots was reviewable.

Officials reach into their back pocket for flags. It’s likely the NFL is going to reach into Belichick’s pocket. It doesn’t matter whether he wanted an explanation about the final field goal, which sailed perilously close to the uprights, or the theory of relativity.

The whimsy and folly of the fill-in officials hit home with Patriots fans this week in the team’s 31-30 loss to the Ravens, a game of flag football in which the teams combined for 24 accepted penalties totalling 218 yards. The Patriots, flagged 10 times for 83 yards, accrued seven penalties that were either offensive/defensive pass interference or defensive holding, passing game infractions that are the NFL equivalent of calling a two-shot foul in basketball.

Where is Joey Crawford when you need him?

The officials didn’t cost the Patriots a victory against Baltimore. Allowing 503 yards of total offense and 10 plays of 20 yards or more in the passing game, including Devin McCourty’s fateful 27-yard pass interference penalty on Baltimore’s final drive, did that.

But you know it’s bad when NFL business partners no longer can go along with the NFL’s charade that all is well with the officiating.

In the Patriots’ loss to the Ravens Sunday night, NBC announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth questioned calls in a manner that constituted ridicule and bordered on contempt, all night long.

After a rather dubious defensive holding penalty on McCourty in the fourth quarter, Collinsworth said, “Wow! Guys, keep negotiating. Will you?”

The obvious was stated later on the broadcast.

“No offense to these guys, they’re doing their best, but they’re not qualified to do this job,” said Collinsworth in the fourth quarter. “They’re really not. I mean, that’s become fairly obvious as we’ve gone along.”

Collinsworth, who played eight seasons in the NFL as a wide receiver, was particularly critical of how the passing fouls were being called.

“This game is crazy, and the whole 5-yard bump rule is being liberally applied,” said Collinsworth after a second-quarter pass interference penalty on Jerod Mayo. “Or being misapplied,” added Michaels.

This is what it’s come to. The announcers are engaging in a stand-up comedy act about how laughable the officiating in the league has become. So much for integrity of the game and sanctity of the NFL shield.

In fairness to the replacements, two of the more controversial calls of the game, an illegal contact on Baltimore’s Lardarius Webb that wiped out a Tom Brady interception and McCourty’s pass interference, were both deserving of flags. They got those calls right.

There were actually more egregious officiating acts around the league than what took place at M&T Bank Stadium. In Tennessee, officials mistakenly handed 12 free yards to the Titans in overtime of their game with the Detroit Lions, helping to set up a 26-yard field goal that proved to be the winning margin in a 44-41 victory.

In Washington, there was a full-on fiasco at the end of the Redskins’ 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

A false start by Washington with seven seconds left at the Cincinnati 34 led officials to erroneously rule the game was over because of the 10-second runoff rule, even though a spike on the previous play stopped the clock. Apoplectic Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, son of head coach Mike Shanahan, began barking at one of the replacement officials about the mistake and was issued a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Officials then incorrectly marked off the penalty yardage. What should have been 20 yards in penalties — 5 for the false start and 15 for unsportsmanlike conduct — somehow ended up with the ball moved back to the Washington 41.

Despite what it says publicly, the NFL knows it has a problem. There were multiple reports on Monday that commissioner Roger Goodell took part in the league’s negotiations with the locked-out regular officials Sunday.

That’s of no solace to Denver Broncos coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who were fined $30,000 and $25,000, respectively, Monday, stemming from their behavior on the sidelines during Denver’s 27-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 17.

I have a good use for all the money from fines related to complaints about the officiating the NFL has collected and will collect. It should be funneled right back into the negotiations between the league and the regular officials.

That would be the only way the league can benefit from the use of replacement officials.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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