Commentary by Mark Schultz
There has been much talk about the NFL considering the expansion to eight-person crews. It is a big step that needs to be approved by the NFL Competition Committee and then signed off by the owners. It is very late in the game for the NFL make a decision and have an orderly transition to expanded crews in 2017, but Troy Vincent, vice president of operations, seems pretty determined to go to eight-person crews.
Before Vincent or any others push to expand crews and hire 17 new officials (one new official per crew), the NFL needs to address another round of retirements.
First of all, the NFL seems to want the eighth official to be a brand new position, called the middle judge. It appears to be a hybrid traditional umpire but placed deeper in the secondary, near the back judge. My guess is that they’d move current NFL veterans (maybe old-school umpires) to the middle judge position and hire the 17 new officials in the traditional positions. That whole idea is for another post, but suffice to say, teaching 17 new officials the NFL rules, mechanics, and interpretations while ramping up others to a brand new position is a big undertaking.
Now, on to the potential retirement conundrum: the NFL officials are skewing older. In 2000, the average official started the season with 8.6 years of prior NFL experience; by 2008, that number moved up to 9.4 years. After several years with little turnover, it reached 11.8 in 2013.
After the 2013 season, a total of 13 officials, more than 10 percent of the staff, left the league, some voluntarily, some volun-told. Mike Carey surprised the NFL and retired that following summer. Whenever there is a large turnover and a flood of new officials, officiating will suffer from a lack of experience. The big exit in 2013 contributed to reducing the staff seniority figure, inching down to 11.1 years.
We could have another big exit in 2017, and it has to do with the officials’ collective bargaining agreement, struck after the bitter 2012 lockout. One of the biggest sticking points in 2012 was the NFL’s desire to end the defined-benefit retirement plan, a pension, and move the officials to what other league employees had: a defined contribution, or 401(k), retirement plan. In a compromise, the NFL agreed to keep the pension plan for officials until the end of the 2016 season or until an official had 20 years of service — whichever came first.
2017 could be a very natural time for officials to make a graceful exit with their pension and not have to deal with a 401(k) for just a few years. There are currently 28 officials who have 18 or more years of experience. Nine officials have 22 or more years of service time. I’m not saying all will retire, but could changes in their retirement plan give officials enough of a reason to leave the league?
Let’s suppose that only a quarter of those 28 officials (seven) retire this year. If the NFL is determined to hire 17 new officials to get to eight-person crews, there will be a total of 24 rookies to start the 2017 season. That’s far too many rookies for one season, especially since roughly half of the crews would have two rookies. Not only would that roster of 20+ rookies be severely lacking in experience, it could have consequences 20 years from now when those officials age out, and there could then be another mass retirement over a few-year span.
We’ll have a glut of new officials if the NFL goes to eight-man crews — there’s no getting around that. But, in my opinion the NFL needs to plan for and manage another round of roster turnover before the field is teeming with rookie zebras.