Why NFL finally hired full-time officials

The NFL took an important step Wednesday in what has been a five-year process to convert its officials into full-time league employees. After months of negotiations prompted by the NFL competition committee, the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) agreed to the structure of a modest transition during the course of the 2017 season.

How will this work? What will this mean for the industry? And, most importantly, will it improve the state of officiating? Let’s take a closer look — even closer than we did in this post from December.

Hold up. NFL officials weren’t already full time?

Nope.

How could that be?

The current structure is a vestige of an otherwise forgotten era when almost everyone in the game — including players and coaches — were seasonal employees who had other jobs in the offseason. To this day, the NFL’s 124 officials work on a contractor basis. They are paid well, but most of them have “day” jobs during the week and throughout the offseason.

Some, including referees Walt Anderson and Terry McAulay, are officiating supervisors at the college level. Others have careers entirely unrelated to football. They are attorneys — including referees Ed Hochuli, Ronald Torbert and Clete Blakeman — as well as insurance agents, high school principals and financial advisers.

What’s the problem with that? Officials work one game per week for less than half the year.

This is where the issue gets sticky. Not everyone thinks that converting officials to full-time status would, by definition, improve their performance in games. It’s not as if they’ll be able to officiate more games, and thus get more “practice,” if they are full time. In March, NFLRA executive director Scott Green said it is a “complete misnomer” to suggest that officials weren’t already full time, in terms of time commitment relative to the job requirements.

Preach …

It appears the NFL has been more focused on finding common ground for the process of conversion, and the requirement of full-time status, than the details of what would come next. In a news release, the league wrote that the implementation of the program will “provide the NFL officiating department, in consultation with the NFLRA, the opportunity to identify the most effective ways to utilize the off-field time for game officials throughout the calendar year.”

In other words, we’ll see what the best and brightest will come up with.

Pretty much.

But somebody must have really wanted this.

Oh, without question. It’s simple, in theory. How can the NFL claim to be officiating its games as well as possible if its officials spend most of their professional time in unrelated pursuits? New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton called the situation “madness” last year, reflecting the growing objections from coaches, players and fans to non-full-time status.

So are you saying this is a semantic change for appearance sake?

Not really. Ultimately, this shift can improve officiating. But it might not be reflected in terms of on-the-field accuracy, which is actually quite good on a per-call basis. You’ll more likely see it manifested in off-the-field arenas, such as the development of rules that are more easily officiated, via offseason working groups and discussion among full-time officials who otherwise wouldn’t have had time or the organization to dive into such matters.

It also stands to reason that full-time officials can be in the league’s New York offices on a regular basis. There is no substitute for in-person communication on issues that arise.

Beginning immediately, any of the NFL's 124 officials can apply for full-time status. But they don't have to drop their "day" job completely.

Beginning immediately, any of the NFL’s 124 officials can apply for full-time status. But they don’t have to drop their “day” job completely.

What do officials think of this?

The reality is that they agreed to the possibility in 2012, when the most recent collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLRA was reached. But the league had never approached the NFLRA with a structure that would entice officials to change their career aspirations. Financial details weren’t immediately available, but both sides must feel confident that there is proper incentive for at least 10 percent of the current officials to be interested.

This is targeted only at referees, right?

No. Any of the league’s 124 active officials can apply. Former vice president of officiating Mike Pereira once endorsed a plan to make the league’s 17 referees full time, but Green and the NFLRA insisted on opportunity for all.

Pereira’s thinking was that the referee, as the crew chief, would provide maximum value to the full-time program. Green, however, said that a blended group would maximize knowledge and experience.

So how will this work?

Beginning immediately, any of the 124 current officials can apply for full-time status. They will be allowed to work outside of the league, according to the agreement, but their NFL duties must be given top priority.

“It is definitely a priority shift,” Green said. “The NFL will have to be their priority employer. But there is no restriction other than ‘be available,’ and ultimately the NFL will decide if you’re able to do that.”

Will the full-time officials have to move or commute to New York?

No, but they will be required to travel to meetings on 48 hours’ notice.

Can the NFL require an official of interest to accept full-time status as a requirement for continued employment?

No. The application process means that it cannot be made compulsory.

Is this change permanent?

Actually, no. The sides amended the CBA to reflect the details of the program, but it is technically a one-year experiment that would have to be renewed in order to proceed beyond June 2018.

Why would an official take the plunge without a guarantee it will last beyond one year?

Some officials are retired or semi-retired from their current job. Some feel confident they can keep their side work while prioritizing the NFL. Remember that the cap at this point is 24, which is only 20 percent of the current roster. Advanced math suggests that 80 percent of officials in 2017 won’t be full time.

Anything else, smart guy?

That’ll about do it, for now …

Whether it’s Adrian Peterson or a rookie, RB a priority for Saints

METAIRIE, La. — Of course the New Orleans Saints’ interest in Adrian Peterson makes sense.

No. 1: He’s Adrian Peterson.

No. 2: The Saints have a bigger need at running back than many might realize after letting veteran backup Tim Hightower leave for the San Francisco 49ers.

I don’t think the Saints should break the bank for Peterson, because they already have a very good running back (Mark Ingram), they still have bigger needs on defense and a younger running back in the draft would make more sense as a potential future successor to Ingram.

And maybe New Orleans’ planned visit with Peterson next week is just one of those “due diligence” deals to find out where the 32-year-old is physically and what it might cost to sign him.

But it’s smart business to check him out, considering Peterson is one of the greatest running backs in NFL history and led the league with 1,485 rushing yards in 2015 before a knee injury derailed his 2016 season.

NFL teams haven’t gone overboard in trying to sign Peterson so far (though two pretty good ones — the Patriots and Seahawks — have brought him in for visits).

But if Peterson is healthy and available at a reasonable price, he certainly has the potential to be an upgrade over Hightower, whom I expected the Saints to re-sign after he played such a key role for them over the past two seasons. If re-signing Hightower seemed like a no-brainer, wouldn’t Peterson be the same?

Hightower gained 923 rushing yards and 329 receiving yards and scored nine touchdowns over the past two seasons as a backup and fill-in starter — including 100-yard rushing games in each season.

The Saints need someone else in that role, whether it’s Peterson, another free agent or a significant draft choice.

Ingram is still just 27 and has been playing the best football of his career over the past three seasons. But running backs get dinged up, and the depth chart is extremely thin beyond him. Inexperienced second-year pro Daniel Lasco would probably be penciled in as Ingram’s primary backup for now, since veteran Travaris Cadet is really more of a pass-catcher and kick returner.

Like I said, though, the draft probably makes even more sense than free agency to fill that void. Sean Payton has talked multiple times this offseason about how much he likes the running back depth in the middle rounds of this year’s draft class.

I don’t think the Saints should consider a running back in Round 1 — even if LSU’s Leonard Fournette somehow falls to them. I agree with what NOLA.com’s Jeff Duncan wrote, that such a pairing would probably be a bit of a waste for both sides, since the Saints aren’t a power-running team with Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, and running back is a part-time role in their offense.

Perhaps a dual-threat runner/receiver like Dalvin Cook or Christian McCaffrey would be even more tempting. But that would run counter to the Saints’ decision to trade away a dynamic playmaker like Brandin Cooks for a first-round pick to add resources for the defense.

After that, however, a running back could make a lot of sense, maybe as early as Round 2 or with one of the Saints’ two third-round picks — even if they do wind up signing Peterson as a Hall of Fame stopgap.

Better with age? Drew Brees closing in on fifth 5,000-yard season

METAIRIE, La. — Drew Brees needs 142 passing yards on Sunday to reach 5,000 for the fifth time in his career.

No other quarterback has ever done it more than once. And no other QB is on pace to reach that milestone this season.

Yet Brees’ prolific numbers with the New Orleans Saints have become so mundane that they barely even cause a ripple anymore. He also ranks second in the NFL with 34 touchdown passes but didn’t even make the Pro Bowl.

Brees knows the score, though.

He knows that such accolades come with winning — which he said is the statistic that matters most to him. And the Saints haven’t been doing enough of that lately, with 7-9, 7-9 and 7-8 records over the past three seasons.

“Yeah, yeah, it is (rewarding to have such a good season at age 37),” said Brees, who is arguably playing his best football since 2011 after battling some minor injuries over the past two years. “But at the same time, I’m very much focused on the process to get to the result. The result is I want to be winning, making the playoffs and having a chance at winning a championship.

“So while I feel like there were a lot of good things this year, I feel like we can do even better next year. And certainly, I can do even better next year to get us to where we need to go.”

Brees said it’s his goal to get better with age.

“That’s my goal every year is to get better in some way, to evaluate my performance from the year before during the offseason and try to make improvements wherever I can,” Brees said. “And that might be just a little tweak of my routine. That might be trying something new in regards to my preparation. It might be doing something different in regards to my recovery. There’s a lot of things that I feel like I’ve tried to implement every offseason to prepare myself to play my best during the season, and so that’s always my goal, is to improve and get better.”

Brees has never lacked for confidence, so he didn’t need a season like this for personal validation.

But remember, Brees’ longevity was a big topic of conversation this past offseason while he and the Saints were negotiating over a long-term contract extension. And the Saints wound up only signing him to a one-year extension worth $24.25 million in new money through 2017.

Now Brees will once again be heading into the final season of his contract next year. If anything, he has only increased his value.

“I’m not surprised,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who talked about Brees’ training habits and work ethic, which Payton has always lauded. “It’s never taken for granted. Certainly we’ve changed as the years have gone by maybe in what we’ve tried to do and how many balls he’ll throw early in the week. But he’s as much in tune to that as anyone, and I think he does a great job adjusting and adapting to the schedules and then getting himself both mentally and physically ready to play each week.”

Payton also said the Saints have had more success around Brees this season.

“I think that in some regards, part of what we’re doing now with our running game and what we’re doing now with our protections and how those guys up front are playing are helping in allowing him to have that overall success that you’re wanting to have,” Payton said. “It’s not just that we’re throwing the football. I think it’s important that we’re scoring, our third-down numbers are strong, our red-zone numbers are strong. And I think that balance that we’ve talked about in these last few offseasons, we’ve seen that more now this year. And that’s something we’ve gotta continue to build on.”

Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn — whose team will host Brees on Sunday — certainly has a great appreciation for how long Brees has been able to maintain his elite level of play.

“There’s probably a number of us that would consider Drew as a hell of a coach if he wanted to be,” Quinn said with a laugh. “He has a very clear understanding of where to go with the ball. The anticipation, ‘I want this coverage, I want to go here against this route, I like this matchup’ — those are the things that come with the 10 or 11 years of experience (together with Payton in New Orleans).

“So I would say it’s pretty rare in our day and age to get a quarterback and head coach that are together for 11 years. And I think that’s quite a story that we don’t all talk about on a national level very often. I don’t know how often that happens but it would seem to me, and I’m totally guessing, that it’s pretty rare.

“I think it’s the amount of reps in a system that you can have — think about the old Bruce Lee line, ‘Don’t worry about the man with 10,000 kicks, worry about the man who has one kick 10,000 times.’ I’d say over 10 or 11 years, that’s a hell of a lot of kicks.”

Elite C.J. Spiller Jersey

The New Orleans Saints have cut ties with another expensive free-agent miss, releasing running back C.J. Spiller(C.J. Spiller Jersey) on Monday.

Spiller, 29, signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the Saints last year. But they wound up paying him $9 million for a total of 13 games played.

Spiller was inactive in Week 1, with Saints coach Sean Payton explaining that it was a game-plan decision to go with veteran runner-receiver Travaris Cadet ahead of him. A league source confirmed that it wasn’t health-related.

“It was just one of these games where we knew Cadet was gonna have a big role in his position. And it really just came down to the numbers,” Payton said. “It’s really one of the challenges with six running backs on the roster. So a lot of it was for our game plan.”

Spiller’s run in New Orleans was extremely disappointing. He had just 112 rushing yards, 239 receiving yards and two touchdowns last year while struggling to overcome a minor knee surgery he underwent during training camp. Eventually, the Saints shelved him for the final two weeks and replaced him with Cadet.

Things seemed to be going better this year, with Payton saying Spiller showed progress and some “juice” during training camp and the preseason. And the Saints seemed committed to him after allowing his base salary of $1.7 million to become fully guaranteed in March.

However, it seemed inevitable that the Saints wouldn’t keep six running backs all year — and Cadet seems to be their change-of-pace back of choice.

Cadet had three catches for 14 yards and a touchdown on seven targets Sunday and added one carry for 1 yard.

The Saints now have more than $40 million in “dead money” counting against their salary cap — by far the most in the NFL (the Cleveland Browns are second at $28.1 million, according to ESPN Stats and Information). That number includes their other big free-agent signing from 2015 — cornerback Brandon Browner, among several others.

Spiller will count $4.5 million against this year’s cap — then another $2.5 million next year.

Spiller was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the 2010 at No. 9 overall and made the Pro Bowl with a breakout year in 2012 (1,244 rushing yards, 459 receiving yards). He has 3,433 rushing yards, 1,434 receiving yards and 22 total touchdowns (including kick returns) in his career.