METAIRIE — Before each game, Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton makes it a habit to greet the officials, inquiring about things such as their families and home towns, all in the hope of getting a couple of calls later on.
But Sunday in Green Bay, he’s considering organizing his teammates into going down the line, hugging everyone in a striped shirt.
Getting the regular NFL crews back after a lockout that had produced massive criticism around the league in the season’s first three weeks over the competency of replacement officials will do that to you.
“There have been so many questionable calls,” Lofton said Thursday at the Saints’ practice facility. “It’s going to be refreshing to get the guys who have been reffing the games for so many years back out there.
“Maybe we can finally get some consistency back.”
The lockout ended late Wednesday after two days of negotiating that resulted in an eight-year agreement that no one believes will be allowed to expire again.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to the fans Thursday, saying the controversy on the field, which came to a head Monday in Seattle’s disputed Hail Mary pass that beat the Packers “was painful for everybody.”
To Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson, if the situation had not been resolved, it would have been even worse this week, especially in Green Bay where Packers’ fans were outraged by the Monday night call.
“There was going to be a lot of pressure on those guys, especially from the Green Bay fans,” he said. “You were seeing calls that affected the outcome of the games.
“You just hope they can get back to the level we’re used to.”
The Saints had no official response to the end of the lockout, but interim coach Aaron Kromer said his first thought that it would improve game preparations.
“On Fridays, we talk about the crews — what they like to call, how they see things, and so forth, so you understand what to be ready for,” he said. “We didn’t have anything to go on on these guys except the exhibition games.
“It was pretty hard to fill in the rest.”
The speed of the game was another factor.
Sunday’s overtime loss to Kansas City took almost four hours to play, in large part because of five review situations, although Kromer acknowledged the unusual nature of some of the reviews and the number of scoring plays played a part in the game’s length more than the decisiveness of the replacement refs.
“A game should not take that long,” he said. “We hope we can get these games speed up so we can get them over in three hours and 20 minutes or maybe three hours and five minutes.”
A bigger speed factor to Kromer was the frequent hesitation in spotting the ball. For an up-tempo team like the Saints, that disrupted the rhythm of the offense.
“Having the regular officials back will make the games faster,” he said. “They see the game at the speed it’s played.
“We were definitely thrown off some times in the first three weeks. This is going to change things for us.”
Running backs Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles agreed that the delays in spotting the ball were disconcerting, but they really didn’t notice it until studying film from the games.
“They didn’t always seem to know where the ball was supposed to be,” Ingram said.
Most of the replacement officials came from the Division II and III, junior college, high school and even Arena and Lingerie league ranks.
But tackle Zach Strief said even they had come from the Football Bowl Subdivision, such as the Big Ten where he played, it would have made little difference.
“Those guys were trying,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter what profession you’re in. Any time you rise to from one level to the highest level in your field, you’re not going to have the same results.”
Safety Roman Harper said that while most players don’t consider themselves fans of the officials, he’s glad that consistency in the calls should now be returning.
“If you’re going to call it one way, you’ve got to call it for both teams,” he said. “We didn’t need all of that indecision.
“Against Washington (where Harper drew a crucial pass interference call), I was just turning around and playing the ball.
“I don’t know what I was supposed to be doing differently.”
However, Harper added, there was one call he wished the replacement officials had blown, even though it would have likely have caused a bigger brouhaha than the end of the Packers-Seahawks game.
In the overtime, the Chiefs’ Shaun Draughn was initially ruled to have fumbled after a 12-yard reception to the Saints 43 which Harper caught on the bounce and returned for what would have been the game-winning touchdown.
However, the ruling was reversed when replays clearly showed that Draughn was down well before the ball popped loose, and the Chiefs went on to drive for the game winning field goal.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get the call,” Harper said. “But I still played it all the way and even threw the ball in the stands.
“I don’t think anybody would have let that stand.”