Let's start today's sports column with a little TV history (bear with me, we'll get to the topic at hand shortly):
29 years ago this week, "Three's Company" began its final season on ABC.
The season was the third for actress Priscilla Barnes, who replaced Jenilee Harrison, who in turn had replaced Suzanne Somers, who left the show following a protracted contract dispute.
As most "Three's Company" fans would freely admit, from a quality standpoint the show was never as entertaining after Suzanne Somers was replaced. But from a business standpoint, replacing Somers worked out well. The network saved money with Harrison and Barnes, and, most importantly, the show didn't lose fans: "Three's Company" ended Suzanne Somers's last season tied for the eighth most-watched program in America. It ended Priscilla Barnes's first season as the fourth most-watched program in America.
Which brings us to the NFL's just-ended replacement referee experiment. (See, I told you we'd get there.)
Did the NFL replacement referees stink? Yes.
Were the NFL replacement referees the worst thing to happen to football since Ryan Leaf? Unquestionably.
Am I happy the NFL replacement referees are back teaching high school geography and officiating Lingerie Football League games? For sure.
But was the three-week stunt an unmitigated disaster for the NFL?
Far from it.
As ABC found out about "Three's Company" after replacing Somers, the NFL found out that its product was popular enough to withstand a seismic downgrade in quality.
Don't believe those polls that suggest that fans were planning to watch less football had the referee lockout continued. The proof is in the numbers: The ESPN Packers-Seahawks debacle that effectively ended the lockout was the third most-watched cable television program of the year. The season's first four installments of NBC's primetime NFL games each drew more than 21 million viewers for the first time ever. And CBS reported that ratings for their early game this past Sunday were up 20 percent from a year ago.
The NFL may have gambled and lost that the replacement officials would prove competent, but they didn't lose on their bet that most fans wouldn't be upset enough about the substandard officiating not to tune in.
Odd as it seems, the NFL's image may even enjoy an upswing after all this: Just two days passed between the fiasco that was the final play of week three to the new 8-year contract being settled, a breathtakingly quick agreement to a labor dispute that had been reported as being highly contentious.
It's almost as if Roger Goodell decided: "Keep those pampered refs hanging until these new bozos completely screw one of the league's most popular teams in front of a national audience. Then we'll sign the contract, I'll call a press conference, and I'll look like a hero. Just keep Ed Hochuli and his freakishly massive biceps away from me."
Truth be told, I found the uproar over Monday night's game, particularly here in Wisconsin, to be slightly ridiculous. Of course the substitute refs were laughably wrong in awarding possession of the final pass to Seattle receiver Golden Tate and not to Packers safety M.D. Jennings. No one who has watched more than four minutes of NFL football would dispute that.
But where was the local outcry when replacement officials at Sunday's 49ers/Vikings game granted Jim Harbaugh two crucial fourth-quarter challenges after the 49ers coach was out of said challenges? What Packer fan was upset when Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch was inexplicably penalized 27 yards for a 15-yard penalty in Sunday's loss to the Titans? Where was the green and gold sympathy when black and silver receiver Darrius Heyward-Bye was hospitalized for a gruesome hit that wasn't even flagged?
Yes, I know. These mistakes didn't directly end up deciding the game. But as any football coach or player will tell you, leaving the game in the hands of any official – no matter how competent or incompetent – is a mistake. As Aaron Rodgers himself said after the Packers dropped to 1-2, "there's a lot of blame to fall on the shoulders of guys like myself who didn't play their best game [Monday] night."
After the loss, it was easy, cathartic, and even fun to pile on the refs.
But now that the regular refs are back, who will Packer fans blame if things don't improve from what has been a highly discouraging start to the 2012 season?
They can start by pointing fingers at an offensive line that has been remarkably porous, allowing Rodgers to get sacked a league-leading 16 times in three games. They can accuse the questionable one-dimensional play-calling, giving new toy Cedric Benson only two carries in the first half Monday night. They can blame Rodgers's receivers for consistently mistiming their routes and dropping passes.
Yep, there's a lot of blame to be placed on guys other than those quack referees who were no more official than the Foot Locker employees that they so resemble.
Down in New Orleans, there's a lot of blame to go around for their surprising 0-3 start. But unlike in Green Bay, where the offense has sputtered, the blame in the Big Easy is mostly falling on the defense. Coming off their remarkably tumultuous offseason, the Saints are the worst defensive team in football, allowing a whopping 477 yards and 34 points a game in 2012.
Because of these stats, Rodgers and his receivers should find the going much smoother on against New Orleans on Sunday afternoon, especially after playing three games against San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle, three very good pass defenses. Those first three opponents are a big reason why the words "Aaron Rodgers" and "fantasy bust" appearing anywhere in the same sentence is a joke.
Yes, it's early and three games is a small sample size, but it's highly doubtful that a very angry and still very dangerous Packers team playing at home is what fans of the Saints
think will be the catalyst to turn their season around.
It would be stunning if the Saints went to 0-4. But, given their offseason, not shocking.
It would be completely unfathomable for the Packers to go to 1-3 just a year removed from tearing through the league.
That's why I don't believe it will happen.
But if it does, Rodgers and the Packers won't have the replacement refs to blame anymore.
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