Team owners, spurred by Monday night's game-deciding controversial touchdown call by replacement officials, are having a major impact on progress toward settlement between the NFL and the locked out NFL Referee's Association.
According to multiple reports, the sides were closing in on finishing the agreement Wednesday night. Although there were conflicting reports as to whether the deal has actually be signed, the agreement would allow regular referees to be ready to work Week 4 games.
"We're back. I'm working on Sunday," a game official told CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman on Wednesday night.
NBC officiating consultant Jim Daopoulos told ProFootballTalk.com that a crew was being assembled to work Thursday night's game in Baltimore between the Ravens and the Cleveland Browns.
As a result of intense negotiations that lasted until 2 a.m. Wednesday, there was apparently agreement on a developmental program for backup officials and that is considered a significant step. The sides continued to talk through Wednesday, and worked through a main roadblock when Daopoulos said they agreed to a pension setup in which the current defined-benefit plan will remain in place for five years before switching over to a 401(k) plan.
The actions and words of owners are being credited with finally moving the negotiations in a positive direction.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay reflected the new, aggressive attitude of the owners in a Wednesday tweet aimed at a crescendo of complaints that followed the controversial call Monday night that gave the Seattle Seahawks a game-ending touchdown and a 14-12 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
"Your loud voices r heard about getting Refs back," Irsay tweeted. "We're desperately trying 2 get it done! We want a deal that improves officiating overall."
"It's just become too embarrassing, especially when these calls are deciding games, so some owners stepped up it made a difference," a team executive told The Sports Xchange.
If the a settlement is reached by Thursday evening, SI.com's Peter King reported that a source with knowledge of an NFLRA plan says the officials are ready to ratify the agreement and everything is in place to have them back on the field by Sunday.
"They want to go back to work pretty bad," the officiating source said. "If they go to Dallas, they'd be voting for the deal."
That refers to an in-person vote that must be taken among the 121 officials to ratify any proposal accepted by the NFLRA's board of directors, which includes referees Green and Jeff Triplette. If there is agreement by midday Thursday, that vote would be taken in Dallas on Friday. On Saturday morning, officials could travel to their respective games and take part in game-tape study.
According to King, the NFL may not demand the officials to take their usual physicals.
Ed Hochuli, the NFL's officials best known for his big biceps, has made sure the officials are mentally ready, according to an official source cited by King. Hochuli has conducted tests with the officials each week similar to those they go through when working. This has kept them abreast of rules changes and interpretations.
"That's one of the reasons why the officials will be up to date and ready to go," the officiating source told King. "Ed grabbed the bull by the horns and made sure that whenever this thing ended, the regular officials would be ready to go back to work immediately."
The reported agreement on backup officials involves a developmental program to be created as a compromise to the NFL's insistence that 21 officials be added to the current pool of 121 NFLRA members, an NFLRA source told NFL.com, though the money for the existing officials won't increase.
The 21 backup officials won't become members of the NFLRA, but will join a developmental program and be trained to work NFL games. They will be mentored, by NFL crews during the week, but won't work games and won't be eligible to be subbed out.
As the referees improve, they'll be considered for NFLRA membership, with the financial allotment being adjusted to reflect any new members.
The sides agreed that it was crucial to have more qualified refs available when circumstances arise outside of football, such as personal reasons. Also, referee retirement plans remains an issue, but an NFLRA source told NFL.com that the officials moved a bit off their position Tuesday.