PITTSBURGH - We already know the NFL is one of the most popular shows on television. The ratings prove that.
It's the ultimate reality show, performed live in real time with no post-production editing.
It has violence and suspense and, depending on the venue, there may even be a dash of sex appeal with sidelines shots of cheerleaders.
The Steelers’ Ryan Mundy recovers a fumble on a muffed New York Jets punt.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
If the NFL on TV has been lacking anything, it's been laughs.
Credit to the league and commissioner Roger Goodell, that problem has been solved. The NFL locked out its regular officials in a labor dispute and hired replacements.
They're a riot.
They had a recurring role in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 27-10 victory over the New York Jets at Heinz Field on a spectacular end-of-summer late afternoon Sunday.
Jerry Frump (even the name was funny) was the referee Sunday, which means he was the man with the microphone. But, oh, what a supporting cast he had.
Usually when a penalty flag flies, fans groan because they know what's coming. No more. Now there's genuine intrigue when a penalty is called, because nobody has any idea what the call might be.
You see the players listening attentively since they don't know if the call is against the offense or defense. Beyond that, it's a question of whose number will be called.
There was a flag thrown late in Sunday's game, and most people presumed it was a marginal call against Ryan Clark for unnecessary roughness on a tackle. But when the officials had completed their 25th consultation of the afternoon, the penalty was against Ike Taylor for pass interference.
Two things you can count on: When a penalty is called, the player will work up his best "I didn't do anything" pose, and the home crowd will react with disdain.
But in this case, Taylor was right. He really didn't do anything. Fans reacted to the replays that proved his innocence, and they were right.
The real officials know what to look for, and they know who to watch. The replacement officials try hard, but they've never worked at the pro level, and most of them have never made calls in front of big crowds and a national TV audience.
There's a learning curve, for certain. At this point, they're not even at the beginning of that curve. They're still waiting in line to board the ride.
The players know, but they've been instructed not to say anything. Last week, Steelers tackle Max Starks was giving a politically correct answer when Ben Roethlisberger interrupted from a nearby locker, "Be honest, Max."
There wasn't a chance that was going to happen. The Steelers have had enough trouble with the league office in recent years. They don't need to create new problems.
Nobody even asked coach Mike Tomlin about the officials in the post-game session, obviously knowing any question wouldn't get much of an answer. Some brave soul raised the subject with the quarterback.
Roethlisberger's response was to smile and immediately say, "Next."
Jerry Frump's crew didn't have an obvious impact on Sunday's game. They just made the ride bumpier than it needed to be and confused the players.
The longer this goes, the greater the chances the replacements will mess up something that's important.
The standard argument ("Hey, the regular officials make mistakes, too") doesn't hold up. With that logic, you could replace Roethlisberger and Tom Brady with Division III
freshmen because, hey, all quarterbacks throw interceptions and miss receivers.
It's hard to conceive that a billion dollar business like the NFL can't reach a settlement with the regular officials.
They're messing with a successful formula that creates a great TV show one that Jerry Frump should be watching from the comfort of his living room.