By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
NFL teams have been put on notice: Easy on the replacement refs.
Senior executives from the league made contact with all 32 teams this week through phone calls to team owners, general managers and coaches to reiterate that verbal abuse of the replacement officials will be subject to stiff punishment.
The urgency for such dialogue was perhaps best reflected by outbursts by Denver Broncos coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio during Monday night's game in Atlanta, which included a long, heated exchange after a first-half fumble.
"There's a mob mentality that can take control if you let things get out of hand," Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president for game operations, told USA TODAY Sports on Friday. "We never expect to see what occurred during the first half of the game at Atlanta on Monday happen on the field again."
Other cases also surfaced, including a fiery protest on the field by San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh during Sunday night's contest against the Detroit Lions -- when 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was hit in the head (and left with a bloody case on his nose) by Lions safety John Wendling despite sliding at the end of a scramble. No flag was thrown.
The NFL received a flood of criticism from players, coaches and media analysts following the Week 2 games. While the league can't control the feedback from media, it can indeed take measures to put the clamps on its players and coaches, which was first revealed on Thursday by ESPN.
Fox and Harbaugh are subject to fines for their outbursts, but Anderson declined to confirm whether they were disciplined.
"Players and coaches sometimes think, 'If you can push the limit a little bit, you will,' " said Anderson, who was among the league executives who called teams this week. "We want to put a restraint on it."
Meanwhile, the NFL had face-to-face negotiations with the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) on Tuesday and Wednesday in New York. The meetings are said to have ended without substantial progress as significant economic gaps remain between the league and its locked-out game officials.
Mike Arnold, NFLRA negotiator and spokesman, told The Associated Press there may be additional talks but that it is "not appropriate" to talk about specific issues discussed.
As controversy escalates, Anderson characterized the feedback from NFL teams to the league's mandate this week as "very supportive."
Said Anderson: "Other clubs who were not involved in Monday night's game who weighed in were embarrassed for the NFL."
Even so, the league has also reminded the officials of their role in trying to control games -- and the instances that can spark outbursts and altercations between players.
"Game control is imperative," Anderson said. "We made it the primary point of emphasis to the officials this week, to make sure you keep the games under control.
"We've told them, 'Do not have any tolerance after the play for pushing and shoving, that can escalate. If you see the initiator, you need to be assertive and flag them. Our people know the line, and what is proper. Do not allow them to push the envelope.' "