The NFL's competition committee will recommend to owners that they begin hiring full-time officials in time for the 2017 season, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
The decision, reached during a series of recent meetings to prepare for next week's owners meetings, represents an acceleration of a previously reported timeline. It would also be a significant change in the way the league has long administered its officiating program. For most of its recent history, officials have been part-time employees and union members who work other jobs during the week and in the offseason.
The league will focus first on referees, following a structure outlined years ago by former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira. The league's collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) allows it to convert and/or hire referees into full-time roles, but most officials have resisted because they would have to leave the union and become "at-will" NFL employees.
The committee's recommendation is to approach referees first and give them an opportunity to phase into a program that would be mandatory by the end of this decade. The league is prepared for some current referees to opt out and either leave the league or accept a demotion to another on-field role.
"We've yet to hear from the League on that subject. We obviously agreed to hiring some officials to work in the off season in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, assuming they are adequately compensated, have clearly documented work tasks and maintain the same employment protections that are covered in the CBA. But frankly, It's a complete misnomer that we're not full-time. Trust me, we are," NFLRA executive director Scott Green said.
Meanwhile, the competition committee has mapped out an agenda for the meetings on other topics as well. It is subject to change, but for now it includes:
Allowing referees more flexibility to warn players about borderline celebrations without penalizing them for unsportsmanlike conduct. Although no formal rule change would occur, the league will emphasize to referees that it wants players to engage in spontaneous celebrations as long as they are not prolonged or excessive. There were 30 such penalties in 2016, a small number that drew an outsized reaction from fans and media members.
Members of the NFL officiating department, including senior vice president Dean Blandino, would assume responsibility for replay review decisions from the league office in New York. Referees would contribute to the discussion via a wireless microphone and video tablet, rather than "going under the hood" on the sideline. Blandino already was heavily involved in the discussion, so the goal with this change is to ensure consistency and perhaps speed up the process.
The Philadelphia Eagles are proposing a rule change that would prohibit players from jumping over the line of scrimmage to block a field goal or extra point. Currently, players can do it as long as they do not materially come into contact with an opponent while jumping. The rule is difficult to officiate, and the strategy can be dangerous from a safety standpoint.
The Washington Post reported that the committee could suggest automatic suspensions for players who commit certain "egregious" hits.
NFL Network reported that the committee will propose shortening overtime periods during the preseason and regular season to 10 minutes. Postseason overtimes would remain 15 minutes in the proposal, NFL Network reported.