Regular refs back; Goodell apologizes to fans

NEW YORK (AP) — The NFL's regular officiating crews are back, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has apologized to the fans who

fretted about the replacements the last three weeks.

After two days of marathon negotiations —

and mounting frustration across the league — the NFL and the officials'

union announced

at midnight Thursday that a tentative eight-year agreement had

been reached to end a lockout that began in June. The regular

refs' return couldn't have come soon enough for many players,

coaches and fans.

"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."

The deal follows Seattle's chaotic

last-second win over Green Bay on Monday night in which the replacement

officials struggled.

Goodell, who was at the bargaining table Tuesday and Wednesday,

said regular officials would work the Browns-Ravens game at

Baltimore on 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 NFLPA 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 earns 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 telephone. "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."

The Seahawks beat Green Bay on a desperation

pass into the end zone on the final play. Packers safety M.D. Jennings

had both

hands on the ball in the end zone, and when he fell to the ground

in a scrum, both Jennings and Seahawks receiver Golden Tate

had their arms on the ball.

The closest official to the play, at the back of the end zone, signaled for the clock to stop, while another official at the

sideline ran in and then signaled touchdown.

The NFL said Tuesday that the touchdown pass

should not have been overturned — but acknowledged Tate should have

been called

for offensive pass interference before the catch. The league also

said there was no indisputable evidence to reverse the call

made on the field.

That drew even louder howls of disbelief. Some coaches, including Miami's Joe Philbin and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, tried

to restore some calm by instructing players not to speak publicly on the issue.

Fines against two coaches for incidents involving the replacements were handed out Wednesday.

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. And Washington offensive

coordinator Kyle Shanahan was tagged for $25,000 for what

the league called "abuse of officials" in the Redskins' loss to

Cincinnati on Sunday. 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.