Regular refs to return for Browns-Ravens

The lockout of the union officials should have never extended into the regular season, but the NFL wrapped it up the right way this week.

A league spokesman announced at 11:56 p.m. ET Wednesday night that an agreement had been reached with the NFL Referees Association. But here's where the league came through: There will be a regular referee-union crew in Baltimore for Thursday night's Ravens-Browns game.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell temporarily lifted the lockout so that the officials can work the Thursday night game prior to their ratification vote. The officials will meet Friday and Saturday to vote on the agreement.

“The long-term future of our game requires that we seek improvement in every area, including officiating,” Goodell said in a statement released by the league. “This agreement supports long-term reforms that will make officiating better. The teams, players and fans want and deserve both consistency and quality in officiating.”

Goodell added, “We look forward to having the finest officials in sports back on the field, and I want to give a special thanks to NFL fans for their passion. Now it's time to put the focus back on the teams and players where it belongs."

That means the league will have a crew in place 20 hours after the deal was struck. As I wrote earlier in the day, it would've been unfair to subject the Browns and Ravens to one more game with replacement officials while the rest of the NFL teams had the previously locked-out officials this weekend.

The Ravens are going to be among the happiest teams to see the replacement officials go. Baltimore was the fifth-most penalized team this season. The Ravens were averaging 8.6 penalties per game and were on pace for 139 penalties, which would've tied a franchise record.

Here are key parts of the agreement:

  • Eight-year term covering the 2012-19 seasons.

  • The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season (or until the official earns 20 years of 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, which will have two elements: an annual league contribution made on behalf of each game official that will begin with an average of more than $18,000 per official and increase to more than $23,000 per official in 2019, and a partial match on any additional contribution that an official makes to his 401(k) account.

  • Apart from their benefits package, the game officials’ compensation will increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019.

  • Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option of hiring a number of officials on a full-time basis to work year-round, including on the field.

  • The NFL will have the option to retain additional officials for training and development purposes, and may assign those additional officials to work NFL games. The number of additional officials will be determined by the NFL.