(USA TODAY) - Chippy play. Cheap shots. Illegal hits. Non-calls. Apparently, NFL now stands for No Flag League, or (Almost) Nothing's Forbidden, Linemen.
Who is to blame for a Sunday slate of games marred by bad calls, after-the-whistle hits and rough (even for football) play? The replacement referees, according to many players, coaches and fans.
For only the second time in league history, the NFL opened its regular season with replacement officials, as the league and the union can't see eye-to-eye on a new contract. Even so, the verdict after Week 1 wasn't so bad. Many players had grudgingly said the subs did a fair job.
What a difference a week makes.
By Monday morning, the cascade of gaffes in Week 2 had blown up the twitterverse and become the topic of the day on sports talk radio. ESPN dedicated much of its morning lineup to the issue.
The outrage after these chaotic games -- marred by blown calls and unpoliced cheap shots -- has led many players and coaches to call for an immediate end to the three-month lockout. They want the NFL's regular officials to return to work, believing reasonable money should not be a stumbling block in a league with annual revenue of $9 billion.
Washington Redskins linebacker Chris Wilson -- fresh from one of the chippiest, or edgiest, games of the weekend (Sunday's 31-28 loss to the St. Louis Rams) -- predicted Monday the discontent with the officiating might reach a boiling point soon.
"I think the frustration has grown," said Wilson, now playing in his fifth NFL season. "If it escalates, you're talking about fistfights."
The league and the NFLRA, the referees union, are divided primarily over salary and pension issues. But because the games must go on, the NFL has employed lower-level college and high school referees, who, critics say, don't know the rules, can't or won't discipline million-dollar players, and aren't accustomed to the lightning-fast pace of NFL games.
"Get the regular referees in here and let the games play themselves out," Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said Sunday. "We already have controversy enough with the regular refs calling the plays."
Monday night's contest at the Georgia Dome seemed poised to boil over during a long, penalty-infested first half. It might have been a litmus test of the replacement officials' capability of maintaining control of the game.
Late in the first quarter, it nearly got ugly as Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons players battled for a loose football after Denver running back Knowshon Moreno fumbled.
Even after the Falcons apparently recovered, excessive pushing and shoving ensued. At one point, heated Broncos tackle Orlando Franklin touched an official, line judge Eric Hoffman, which generally would result in an automatic ejection.
Hoffman, nor any of the other officials, even bothered to throw a flag from that contact.
But another player involved in the fracas, Falcons defensive end Ray Edwards, drew a personal foul for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Add the screaming from Broncos coach John Fox to protest calls -- or lack thereof -- and delays to review plays that normally aren't reviewable (such as a deflected pass that wiped out a pass interference) and general chippy play, the stage was set for controversy.
Another blunder came late in the first half when a Broncos drive was kept alive by a defensive holding penalty against Dominique Franks. There was little debate that Franks grabbed intended target Eric Decker, negating the receiver's path to the ball.
But the officials marked the yardage as a spot foul, which would have been the case for a pass interference penalty, worth 11 yards. It should have been marked as a five-yard infraction and automatic first down.
That Denver gained an extra 6 yards by the mistake was one more footnote to a heated, 13-penalty first half.
With negotiations between the league and locked-out referees at an impasse, these tumultuous, uncontrolled games put the NFL in a quandary. As many fans see it, the league is putting its integrity at risk, along with player safety, at a time when the NFL has pledged to take action to reduce serious injuries. All just to save a little money in a long-term deal with the officials.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says the league is standing by the replacements.
"Officiating is never perfect," Aiello said in an e-mail Monday to USA TODAY Sports. "The current officials have made great strides and are performing admirably under unprecedented scrutiny and great pressure.
"As we do every season, we will work to improve officiating and are confident that the game officials will show continued improvement."
An internal memo -- obtained Monday by USA TODAY Sports, dated Sept. 14 and sent from the NFLRA negotiating committee to union members -- says the two sides were only "$250,000 apart for the 2012 season" when the last formal talks fell apart on Sept. 1. The negotiations have revolved around a possible five- or seven-year contract.
Aiello said Monday that the memo was "completely inaccurate."
The calls not being made
After getting a feel for the replacements in the first week of meaningful games, the savviest among the unsavory players have learned what football felonies they can get away with -- grabbing, holding, hitting after the whistle. And now tempers are starting to flare on the field and off.
Statistics show replacement officials are calling approximately the same number of penalties as the locked-out refs called in past years, but players insist the issue is the calls they are missing. NFL fields now have the feel of a classroom with a substitute teacher, and the end result, according to players, is many more infractions.
There hasn't been an all-out brawl this season, yet. On Sunday, there were minor skirmishes between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Ravens, some pushing and shoving between the Redskins and Rams, and occasional sniping between the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Bucs.
Players and analysts alike seem to agree that the replacement refs are losing control of games.
Why? Pick a gripe: They're indecisive. They're blowing calls. They don't know the rules. They're swallowing their whistles. They're not very alert. Or, all of the above, said FOX analyst Mike Periera, the former head of NFL officiating.
"You can't expect replacements to know the intricacies of the NFL rule book in two weeks on the job. It takes years," Periera wrote on his blog for Fox Sports. "But it doesn't take long -- two weeks -- to see this is not working."
Sunday night, when a second pass interference penalty was called on Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor and the replay showed little if any contact with a New York Jets receiver, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin threw off his headset and appeared to be livid with the officials.
When asked in the postgame press conference about the officiating, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a one-word reply: "Next."
After games they believed were poorly managed by refs this past weekend, Ravens fullback Vonta Leach labeled the Eagles "dirty," and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan hinted the Rams might have taken some cheap shots at his rookie (and franchise) quarterback, Robert Griffin III -- a notion supported by Shanahan's players.
"They were definitely doing things that (weren't) clean football," Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said Monday. "Late hits, stuff like that. Things that bordered on dirty."
A ref -- and Saints fan
Throughout the league, players are complaining about infractions, from holding to pass interference to hits on defenseless receivers, that aren't being called by hesitant replacement officials -- some of whom might be star-struck.
Hours before Sunday's game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, side judge Brian Stropolo was replaced with an alternate because the NFL discovered, from Stropolo's Facebook page, that he is a Saints fan.
Though the league maintains that the replacements underwent the same vetting process as the regular officials, Aiello said that they're taking another look at Stropolo.
"We are reviewing Mr. Stropolo's status and pending completion of that review," he said, "he will not be serving as an on-field game official."
Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, in his ninth NFL season, tried to defuse the situation momentarily Monday by jokingly offering to throw a stack of cash on the table to help bring back the regular officials, even though he isn't up to speed on the difference between defined contribution and defined benefits retirement plans.
"I don't know what they're arguing about, but I've got a couple mil, so let's try to make it work," Hall said. "I'm sure this locker room could party up some cash and try to help the cause out."
He was kidding about the money, but not about the scathing critique that followed.
"I have never been a part of anything like that before," he said. "I've played a lot of football in my years, and I've never been a part of a game that was that chippy. Just so many extracurricular things going on after the play. It's like, â??Come on, man, you can get somebody hurt out here.'"
Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh violated the league's request not to criticize the replacements when he claimed, during the preseason, that the officiating had given him a "headache." He now says his team is having trouble understanding what will or won't be called on the field.
"The challenge for us right now is figuring out what constitutes what," Harbaugh said. "What constitutes illegal contact? What constitutes pass interference? We're not sure right now."
Fletcher, in 15th season, just wants reliable officials.
"They're just so inconsistent that it definitely has an effect on the games," he said Monday. "You hope it would get better, but both teams have to deal with the same referees. (Sunday) definitely was a situation where there was a lot of stuff throughout the course of the game. I'm surprised there weren't more penalties thrown."
Meanwhile, Shanahan was asked Monday whether he was submitting videotape of any plays he believed were botched by officials in an attempt to make sure they get the calls right the next time.
"I don't even do that," Shanahan said. "There's too many."
Contributing: Jim Corbett, Robert Klemko, Jarrett Bell