The NFL’s regular officials will make their season debut in Baltimore Thursday night, sparing Ravens fans the inconsistent officiating of the replacement crews that have infuriated players, fans, coaches and commentators during the first three weeks.
Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to the fans after two days of marathon negotiations between the NFL and the officials resulted in a tentative eight-year agreement to end a lockout that began in June.
"Obviously when you go through something like this, it's painful for everybody," Goodell said on a conference call about 12 hours after the deal was struck. "Most importantly, it's painful for fans. We're sorry to have to put fans through that. Sometimes you have to go through something like that in the short term for the right agreement for the long term."
He later repeated the apology in a Thursday afternoon news conference and noted "there was a real pressure for people to get back on the field."
The deal follows Seattle's chaotic last-second win over Green Bay on Monday night in which the replacement officials struggled and the $25,000 fine that Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan received for berating an official after Sunday’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Goodell, who was at the bargaining table Tuesday and Wednesday, said regular officials would work the Browns-Ravens game Thursday night. The seven-man crew working the game is led by referee Gene Steratore, a 10-year NFL veteran.
"We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week's games," NFL Referees Association President Scott Green said.
The players' union is happy to have them.
"Our workplace is safer with the return of our professional referees," the NFL Players Association said in a statement Thursday. "We welcome our fellow union members back on our field."
Plenty of players chimed in, too.
"Never thought I would be excited for the refs to come back to work but it's about time it was definitely necessary!" Cleveland return specialist Josh Cribbs tweeted Thursday morning.
Added Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe: "It was a noble experiment, but I think ultimately a failed experiment, from what we've seen. It'll be good not to have to worry about that when we're on the field. It's good that it won't be a distraction anymore."
Shortly after the news broke, Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller tweeted, "Welcome back REFS."
The tentative deal must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members. They plan to vote Friday and Saturday in Dallas.
For the Packers, Redskins, Lions and other teams who voiced their displeasure with calls that might have swayed games, the agreement doesn't change their records. But after having replacements for the first three weeks, triggering a wave of outrage that threatened to disrupt the rest of the season, Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck probably spoke for his peers by simply echoing Spiller: "Welcome back."
The agreement hinged on working out pension and retirement benefits for the officials, who are part-time employees of the league. The tentative pact calls for their salaries to increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019.
Under the proposed deal, the current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season or until the official reaches 20 years' service. The defined benefit plan will then be frozen.
Retirement benefits will be provided for new hires, and for all officials beginning in 2017, through a defined contribution arrangement. The annual league contribution made on behalf of each game official will begin with an average of more than $18,000 per official and increase to more than $23,000 per official in 2019.
Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option to hire a number of officials on a full-time basis to work year round, including on the field. The NFL also will be able to retain additional officials for training and development, and can assign those officials to work games. The number of additional officials will be determined by the league.
"As you know, this has to be ratified and we know very little about it, but we're excited to be back. And ready," referee Ed Hochuli told the Associated Press by phone. "And I think that's the most important message -- that we're ready."
The longest contract with on-field officials in NFL history was reached with the assistance of two federal mediators.
Replacements have been used both to play and officiate NFL games before. In 1987, the players went on strike and three games were played with replacement players. In 2001, the first week of the regular season was officiated by replacements before a deal was worked out.
One big difference: The replacements 11 years ago generally came from the highest levels of college football. These officials were from lower college divisions or other leagues such as Arena Football.
After Seattle's 14-12 victory against the Packers, their ability to call fast-moving NFL games drew mounting criticism, with ESPN analyst Jon Gruden calling their work "tragic and comical."
In addition to the fine on Shanahan, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was docked $50,000 for trying to grab an official's arm Sunday to ask for an explanation of a call after his team lost at Baltimore. Two other coaches, Denver's John Fox and assistant Jack Del Rio, were fined Monday for their conduct involving the replacements the previous week.
"I accept the discipline and I apologize for the incident," Belichick said.
Players were in no mood for apologies from anyone.
"I'll probably get in trouble for this, but you have to have competent people," Carolina receiver Steve Smith said. "And if you're incompetent, get them out of there."
And now they are out.