Assoc. Arts and Culture Editor
The NFL would not allow replacement referees to give interviews, but now that the lockout has been lifted, Jim Winterberg is speaking out. Winterberg’s crew was considered the best in the NFL. Out of all the replacement crews the NFL chose his to referee the Giants and Cowboys game, the game that would be televised nationally. All eyes would be watching the opening game of the 2012 season.
Winterberg has been officiating football for 20 years at the high school and college level. He even refereed at Millersville. After having double bypass surgery in November of 2010 he was out of commission for several months. He continued for one more year officiating college football and then decided that he would just stick to high school.
In June the NFL officially locked out the referees. The NFL sent out letters to officials that had retired, that were Division 1-AA and below, including high school refs. Winterberg received the letter and was interested. He was interviewed by the FBI and underwent several weeks of a rigorous screening process.
The next step was to go to Atlanta for a clinic where they tested his knowledge of the game as well as his physical abilities. Referees need to be in decent shape. (Ed Hochuli notwithstanding). After this process they selected Winterberg as one of the 120 that would attend another clinic. Winterberg continued to impress the NFL and he became a replacement official. He was assigned to the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp. There seemed to be this perception that the NFL was just pulling guys that were working high school games and then sticking them in NFL. The process was quite lengthy as they filtered people out to find the best refs that they could.
“The NFL treated us like gold,” said Winterberg. If the new refs had not been willing to take the abuse of the media and fans, the league would have been in serious trouble. Winterberg still believed that the lockout would end before the season started so he continued along with the process to see what would happen. Winterberg reffed all four preseason games and loved the experience. “The first preseason game, coaches and teams gave us a bit of slack,” said Winterberg. “I had a great time.”
The preseason games are a time for players to knock off the rust and for rookies to get used to the speed of the game. Teams are lax in the play-calling and obviously the games do not matter. This allowed the refs to learn and get used to calling an NFL game.
“I’m a very good rules person, but the rules are very complicated,” said Winterberg. He then went into detail about a mistake his crew made, one that many probably did not notice. In the NFL, if there is a holding penalty the ball is placed ten yards from the spot of the foul. 2nd and nine now becomes a first and nineteen. If the hold takes place while the ball carrier is behind the line of scrimmage then it is a 10 yard penalty from the line of scrimmage. So a four yard loss and a hold would still be first-and-twenty, not 1st-and-24.
Since it was the preseason players did not give Winterberg a hard time, although he did have to step in front of Julius Peppers when he and a lineman started arguing. Many of the referees were not physical enough with the players. Early in the season players were completely out of control and fighting with one another, the officials were
not taking control. Can you really blame the replacement refs though? These guys look even bigger in person and it must take some serious willpower to stand by a call you make. Winterberg did say that, for the most part, players will respect the stripes.
At the Pittsburgh preseason game he started to feel dizzy and sick. He was okay, but the doctor told him that going through an NFL season might be too stressful for him. That same day the crew schedule came out and he saw that his crew would be doing the season opener. Winterberg decided to put his health first and not take the field. “I worked outside of the crew, took notes, and helped out in any what that I could,” said Winterberg.
He knew that the replacement refs had their work cut out for them. There were seven rookie refs on the field, when normally there might be one per crew. He weighed in on the Packers/Seahawks debacle and said that he knew some the guys. “They made a ton of mistakes, that game was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Winterberg. The refs on the field should have conversed before making the call. The bottom line is that these guys were in a tough spot, and they truly did the best they could.
“One of my best friends was all over YouTube after he got a couple announcements wrong,” said Winterberg. They would splash these guys all over SportsCenter and make fun of them. The anger was directed more at Roger Goodell, but still these men were made to look like idiots. Fully understanding the rulebook is no easy task. On top of that you have to have control of the players and the white hats have to go out and announce the calls.
The fans were happy to say goodbye to the replacement referees, but how about a thank you for keeping the game going for the first couple weeks.