"I think players will start to care once the season gets closer," Winston said by phone Wednesday evening. "What they can do about it, I don't know. But I'd be shocked if it doesn't get resolved by Week 1. I think that's probably why it's not on a lot of team's radar."
So we're clear on that, right? Not a major cause for concern -- yet.
As we learned during last year's player lockout, these things take time. They require deadlines. And sometimes, as we saw earlier this week when the NFL announced it would "proceed immediately with the hiring and training of replacement officials," they require tough talk.
But as we begin to educate ourselves on this matter, even if the start of the regular season is still three months away, let's at least attempt to gain some outside perspective from the players. What would replacement referees mean to them? How would it impact their Sundays?
We asked two starters -- one on offense (Winston) and one on defense (Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson) -- what they think about the possibility.
While Winston provided examples of the views expressed during a conversation with other veteran players, Winston and Jackson both stressed that these are their views alone and do not represent the views of the NFL Players Association. Here are the reasons why Winston and Jackson would like to see the labor situation remedied by the season's start:
Jackson: "If we're protecting the players, having a professional referee is important. We're professional athletes. We want professional referees. We don't want replacements. With the player safety issues -- and all of these big hits -- officials are very important. I look at it as we get paid a ton of money; we spend a ton of time developing schemes and studying film. Once we get on the field, we need that same effort. We need to know that guy calling the game is just as good."
Winston: "Some of the refs, you have pretty good banter with. Some, you don't know at all. It goes from ref to ref. Some refs are very personable. You know them, especially if they've been around a long time. You know their name; you know what they like to call. And I think it makes the games better that way. If you add new refs, they don't know you, you don't know them. You don't know what the deal is, and it starts to change things up pretty dramatically. It's not a black-and-white issue."
Jackson: "Refs get scouting reports just like we get scouting reports. They know who is aggressive, who is not. They know how to call the game. That changes a major dynamic of the game -- what you can and can't get away with."
Winston: "You look at college basketball refs and pro basketball refs. It's a different kind of game. It's called differently. In college basketball, a hand check is one thing. And in pro ball, a hand check is completely different. I think that's how it's going to impact the game -- if it does last into the season. We could be in a situation where there's going to be a lot more calls or there's going to be no calls. One or the other. Either everyone has the whistle stuck or they're too busy blowing them to get on TV."
Jackson: "At my position (middle linebacker), there's a lot of holding that goes on. When you get a guy who understands when and when not to throw a flag, it changes the game. Linemen are coming up on me, and if I can't get off a block, it can get out of hand."
Winston: "It's something that you just don't all of a sudden pick up. These guys have been working at it for a long time. They're professional refs. So you can't just say I'll figure it out. How many games will be decided by calls for illegal hits over the middle or roughing the quarterback? Every game is so important in the NFL. You can't just say these guys will be acclimated after four games into the season. How many games are going to be decided then -- and we'll look back in Week 15 wishing we had that game back."
During Winston's recent conversation with veteran players, he sensed many of them shared similar sentiments about where the game could be headed in the case of replacement referees. Jackson's clearly uneasy about the situation, too. But it's important to remember not every player is concerned.
"I don't necessarily think that the safety of the players will be in danger if they get new guys," Clark said.
Whatever the case, Winston, Clark and Jackson all agree on one aspect of the situation: They expect it to get resolved before the season starts.
"Nobody wants to be out of work," Clark said. "You try to get the best deal possible, but at the end, negotiations will come through and referees will be out there."
Added Winston: "I don't think guys are overly concerned about it yet."