Replacement officiating, a national embarrassment, ended late Wednesday night when the NFL and the NFL Referees Association reached agreement on an eight-year deal.
The deal was done in time for a crew to be in place for the Thursday night game between the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens, along with the 13 other games scheduled for Sunday and one on Monday night. After 48 regular-season games of botched calls, incorrect interpretations of rules, misplaced spotting of the ball and lengthy games, the replacements are being replaced.
Here are five things to know about the return of the regular referees:
1. The negative backlash from the Green Bay Packers' loss to the Seattle Seahawks on "Monday Night Football" pressured the NFL into getting this deal done. With President Obama expressing his disappointment with the replacement officiating and poor officiating being the lead story of network news coverage, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had to act -- and he did. The league made a major concession to keep funding a pension plan for the next five years before transitioning that benefit to become a 401K plan. There is even a slight increase in the pension benefits plan from 2012-16. The NFL backed down on a plan to have three additional crews of seven officials hired and paid out of the total compensation package. The new hires are paid out of the NFL coffers and not out of the current officials' take. As for the compensation package, officials will average $149,000 a year in 2012, $173,000 in 2013 and $205,000 in 2019.
2. Officials will be jet-setters over the next several days: A seven-man crew will be at the Baltimore-Cleveland game even though this deal isn't ratified. Goodell and the NFL lifted the lockout, opening the door for a crew to work that game. Under a new ratification process, the 121 members of the NFLRA will fly to Dallas on Friday and stay Saturday morning. The first item on the agenda will be having the agreement presented to them. On Friday night and Saturday morning, officials will have a clinic to get them up to speed on rule changes, conditioning and any new emphasis the league might want with calls. On Saturday, there will also be the ratification vote of the deal; it is expected to pass easily. All this will be done quickly enough for 13 crews to fly to their assigned games for Sunday.
3. Starting in 2013, the NFL can start hiring what can be termed a taxi squad of officials. The NFL wanted 21 officials, but the league will start by hiring seven. They will be trained and gradually phased into the mix on crews. With 14 of the current 121 officials with 20 years' experience, it is expected that there will be officials retiring over the next several years. The number 20 is important when you consider the longevity of officials. An official can max out his defined benefits package once he reaches 20 years. When officials reach that tenure, some will retire. That's where the taxi squad will help with the transition. The NFL now has the ability to train the next generation of officials to be ready.
4. Full-time officials? Maybe: Starting in 2013, the NFL gained the option of hiring some officials on a full-time basis. Should the league take that option, it would probably focus on hiring referees who could work the field during the regular season and teach, train and organize officiating game plans as their full-time jobs. Even though current officials have defined retirement plans through the league, they are all part-time employees who can work other jobs during the week.
5. Despite 48 regular-season and 65 preseason games of replacement officiating, the NFL can survive: Sure, the NFL shield was tarnished by the replacement refs. Poor officiating turned games into 3-hour, 20-minute marathons that were hard to watch. The league rightfully was criticized for assigning a Saints fan to be a side judge at a New Orleans Saints game. It was criticized for letting team-hired practice officials call their regular-season games. The Packers and their fans will never forget the "Inaccurate Reception" call Monday that cost them their game against the Seahawks. But the game will survive. It survived replacement players in 1987. It survived replacement officiating for one week in 2001. The NFL has a good product. Now, it has the regular officials there to police it.