League executives said Monday they now foresee starting the 2012 regular season with replacement officials.
At a time when players are openly criticizing replacement officials and coaches are privately grumbling about them, the NFL and NFL Referees Association are not making any progress towards a new deal, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Economics play a part in the stalemate, but league brass said there are two other issues hanging over and hanging up negotiations.
For starters, the NFL wants to make a group of officials, who work only part time for the NFL, work full time. But more than 90 percent of those officials already have full-time jobs and they are unwilling to leave them and the revenue they provide.
The other issue is that the NFL wants to add three additional crews to give officials more rest and the league more officiating options, but the locked-out officials oppose this. In an ideal world, the NFL would like a bigger pool of officials to choose from, especially with some of the top officials aging. The league believes if it could bring in more officials now, it could groom more for the future.
The league also has discussed the option of rotating some of the proposed new officials into established crews if the league determines there is a substandard performance by an official that merits a change.
The NFL is completing its first full preseason weekend with Monday night's Cowboys-Raiders game. It has assigned crews to this upcoming weekend's second week of preseason games. Plus, the assignments for the third week were sent out Monday, further proving that the league is planning to have this last into and through the preseason.
The league also believes that now that the replacement officials, who have been training with the league for the past three months, will be better suited to handle the pressure of the NFL with experience this past weekend. As one league executive in the officiating department said, just as teams are forced to start rookies in the preseason, the league is being forced to do the same, and just as teams' rookies often perform better as the preseason goes on, so will the officials.
"Everybody says the preseason is at one speed and once you get up to regular season the speed picks up and it goes to the next level," Podlesh said. "That is one thing that basically all these refs that are officiating our games haven't experienced. It's an unwritten chapter right now in officiating. You don't know what's going to happen. That's the concern for the players: are they going to be able to keep up with the speed of the game and are they going to make the right calls that are going to make the players feel safe?"
One source familiar with the stalled negotiations estimated that the two sides would not resolve their differences until the third week of the regular season. His feelings on the state of the talks provide a snapshot of how far apart the two sides are.
ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson contributed to this report.