The NFL hopes to hire as many as 17 full-time officials this offseason, apparently as part of an initiative to move to eight-man officiating crews in 2017. That was the word Thursday from NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent, who spoke to an Associated Press reporter during a stop at the Buffalo Bills' practice facility.
What's going on here? What does this all mean? Let's take a closer look.
Really? The NFL has part-time officials?
Yep. They all work "day" jobs during the week and the offseason. Some are involved in college football officiating. Referee Gene Steratore officiates college basketball and runs a sanitary supply company. Ed Hochuli is an attorney. So is Clete Blakeman.
Well that seems silly. Why?
The structure is a vestige of the NFL's earliest days, when there were 14-game seasons (or shorter) and most seasonal employees -- players, coaches and officials -- all had offseason jobs.
The NFL has proposed changes before, most recently during the 2012 contract negotiations with the NFL Referees Association. The final agreement, which runs through 2020, gave the NFL an option to hire some full-time officials. To date, however, the league has not enticed current members of the NFLRA to forgo their total income in exchange for full-time status.
As a result, the only full-time official has been line judge Carl Johnson, who is the league's former vice president of officiating and thus was already a full-time employee of the league.
So what exactly do officials do all week?
They live around the country but are all connected digitally via tablets. They receive evaluations from their previous game, download video to study, and arrive at the site of the game a day early for meetings and additional film study. They also must attend a series of offseason training sessions and an annual summer convention in Dallas.
Who exactly is clamoring for officials to be made full-time?
The NFL, as noted, would like it to happen on its own terms -- financial and otherwise. Players and coaches, who are now in essence year-round employees, don't understand the disparity. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton called it "madness" that "we're the only league that has officials that have primary other jobs" during an appearance on "Pro Football Talk Live."
"We can pay these guys," Payton added. "They should be full-time NFL officials, and they should be working throughout the week, communicating. And I know they get their hour in here, their hour in there, and maybe even more than that. But by and large, every other sports league employs full-time officials. And ours, these guys all have other significant jobs. And I just think it's very difficult to do with the speed of the game."
How would their jobs be different if they were full-time?
That's an excellent question, one most officials themselves don't know the answer to. Is there a way to better prepare them for "the speed of the game" than what they already are doing?
Ideas include sending them to team practice sites for additional "reps" mid-week. They could also spend more time together as a group in the NFL office to study rules and discuss issues. In theory, that work would to spur a level of consistency and precision that they can't achieve when scattered around the country.
Would that make officiating any better?
That's debatable at best.
In reality, it's rare when an official forgets a rule. They can study at home as well as they could study in the NFL office. And I don't know if you can train them to see plays any better than they already do in real time. Statistically, they get the vast majority of calls right.
They also face a similar level of accountability as part-time employees that they would be as full-timers. They are each graded on every play of every game, and their season grades place them in tiers at the end of the season.
Officials who land in the lowest tier in multiple seasons are subject to dismissal, and between 2013-15 the NFL turned over more than 20 percent of its officiating roster.
OK, smart guy. Then what would improve officiating?
Technology, not individual skill, might be the biggest obstacle for officiating in all professional leagues to overcome.
We've reached a point where games are broadcast more clearly and from more angles than the officials have access to themselves on the field. Their mistakes are more visible, but not necessarily more frequent, than in past decades of NFL play.
It's time either to equip them with the ability to see the same thing that fans see at home -- via increased use of replay or a video official with authority to correct obvious mistakes -- or accept that humans will make mistakes at full speed that can be recognized far more easily in slow motion from multiple angles.
Then what's this talk about adding a crew member all about?
I wrote about this in August. The NFL experimented with expanded crews, adding a middle judge to the defensive backfield. The middle judge's primary job was to watch for holding by defensive linemen, a hole created when the league moved the umpire into the offensive backfield.
Another possibility is to position the eighth official to assist the referee in protecting the quarterback.
So that's where the number 17 came from?
Right. The NFL has 17 officiating crews. If it adopts this approach -- and the NFL competition committee recommended it last spring -- the league will need to hire one new official per crew. It would be odd for the newest hires to be full-time, but it's not clear whether that is in fact the NFL's plan.
Is this a done deal?
Not at all. The competition committee will meet in February prior to the scouting combine to comb through this and many other issues. Any proposal would have to be approved by owners.
Adding 17 full-time employees is not a deal breaker in a $13 billion industry, but it would be a multi-million-dollar expense. As with any business, owners will want to know that the additional expenditure will reap true benefits before approving any recommendation. They will also want assurances that an additional official won't lead to additional penalties, a concern given ongoing issues with the pace of NFL games.