With the regular-season opener only 15 days away, the NFL's vice president of operations said Monday he believes there is little chance of a quick settlement with the locked-out officials and that the season will begin with replacements.
Ray Anderson, who oversees the league's officiating department, told Newsday the NFL is pressing forward with plans to use replacement officials.
"I would anticipate that it would go into the regular season, unless the parties get back to the table in a hurry,'' Anderson said. "And frankly, I don't see either of us stepping forward and making that move.
"We feel we have been aggressively fair in our offer on the economic and non-economic issues, and they don't. Until that bridge is narrowed or shortened some, and I don't know when that time might come, I'm focused on getting the current officials ready for Week 3 and Week 4 ."
Anderson sounded an ominous note when he said the league is prepared to dig in for a long time if there is no resolution. "Are we prepared to stay the course if there is no desire on their part to narrowing the gap?" he said. "The answer to that question is yes."
Mike Arnold, lead negotiator for the NFL Referees Association, did not return calls seeking comment.
The league and the referees association are at odds over a seven-year contract offer from the NFL. The union is said to be seeking a 20-percent increase in salary in the first year of the contract. The league also wants to add 21 new officials to add depth to the officiating crews. But the union says the extra officials would effectively produce an overall reduction in pay. The union wants its current pension program to continue but the league wants to make changes.
"If we can bring in 21 fresh members of the officiating body, blend them together with a mixture of veterans and first-year folks, we're going to have a better short- and longer-term quality of officiating on the field," Anderson said. "We need some fresh blood in there, some fresh legs. We think the more we have, the fresher our whole officiating group will be."
Anderson called the NFLRA's refusal to add more officials "counterintuitive. It's unusual that a union would oppose adding to their union ranks."
The 136 replacements, who come from non-Division I college football leagues, are scheduled to meet with the NFL's officiating department Tuesday and Wednesday at a clinic in Dallas. Anderson, director of officiating Carl Johnson and others will go over tape of preseason games with them.
Coaches and players have criticized the replacements for missing calls, but Anderson believes the group has performed reasonably well. He is confident they will do an adequate job in the regular season if the work stoppage is not over by then.
Anderson said this is an especially important week for the replacement officials, because most teams typically play their starters well into the third quarter as a final dress rehearsal for the regular season. In the final week of preseason games, most starters do not play as a way to avoid injury.
"Week 3 is going to be most similar to a regular-season game," Anderson said. "The intent is to see what you have, and we're going to see how our current officials respond in an elevated intensity."
Anderson said his level of concern about officiating errors is "no more elevated than when we have our regular officials in preseason. Every preseason the first couple of weeks, there are a number of mistakes, but they're not as magnified because we weren't in a lockout situation."
Anderson said he doesn't believe players will be at greater risk with the replacements, and said the league will "make sure there's a diligent environment of health and safety rules and diligent enforcement of [hitting the] quarterback rules."
Former NFL referee Bernie Kukar said the replacements will struggle if they're pressed into action in the regular season.
"They've never seen an NFL game up close, on the field," Kukar told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "The difference will be significant. That much is guaranteed. I hope this gets resolved, because I think there will be some big problems."
Mike Pereira, the NFL's former director of officiating, told Newsday Monday that he thinks the replacement officials are overmatched and that using them in the regular season would be a huge problem for the league.
"They may be competent officials in the levels they come from, whether it's Division II, III or semipro, but this is the NFL," Pereira said. "This is a game that can't be handled properly by a group like this. I feel bad for them, but that's the way it is."
Pereira said he worries about player safety because the replacements "won't call some of the things they need to call, like leg whips and chop blocks. I'm worried about the administrative enforcement and interpretations of the rules."
Pereira said the league must use the best officials available.
"If you're a player, a coach, an owner or a fan, I think you deserve to see the best officials," he said. "That said, the officials need to come off their high horse a little bit and give up some of what they're asking, and the league has to find some common ground. It's not a big enough difference to compromise the integrity of the game."