The NFL and the NFL Referees Association have reached an agreement regarding backup crews, a significant step toward bringing regular referees back on the field, an NFLRA source told NFL.com Wednesday.
Enough progress was made during a late-night, early-morning negotiating session, that the possibility of the regular officials coming back for this week's games has been broached, sources on both sides told ESPN.com's Chris Mortensen.
Mortensen further reported that an agreement in principle is close, citing a source familiar to talks. A different league sources told ESPN.com that it would take a week to get the locked-out officials back on the field.
The owners, who previously haven't shown any willingness to give on the referees' benefits issues that led to the lockout, have become more involved in the talks, a source told NFL.com.
"Your loud voices r heard about getting Refs back," Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted. "We're desperately trying 2 get it done! We want a deal that improves officiating overall."
Under the potential agreement, a developmental program will 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.
The sides haven't yet resolved the issue of referee retirement plans, but an NFLRA source told NFL.com that the officials moved a bit off their position Tuesday.
Owners had sought for all officials to go to a 401(k), and the NFLRA offered to have new officials on such a plan, with existing members grandfathered in under the old pension.
One source told NFL.com that the owners are resisting any further compromises.