The National Football League and its regular referees reached a labor agreement two days after a call on the final play of the Monday night game in Seattle cost the Green Bay Packers a victory against the Seahawks.
The NFL reached agreement on a new eight-year labor deal with its referees late Wednesday, ending a lockout that forced unprepared replacement referees onto the field, creating three weeks of botched calls, acute criticism, and furious coaches and players.
“Our referees will be back on the field starting tomorrow night” for the Cleveland-Baltimore game, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said late Wednesday.
The agreement came 48 hours after the nadir of the league’s experiment with replacement referees, when a controversial call on the final play of the Monday night game in Seattle cost the Green Bay Packers a victory against the Seattle Seahawks.
That nationally televised debacle spurred two days of lengthy negotiations against the backdrop of immense public pressure and scorn, most of it directed at the league. Both sides were so determined to play no more games with replacements that they raced Wednesday to get referees in place to work this week’s slate.
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A crew of regular referees will be in Baltimore on Thursday night to work the Ravens’ game against the Cleveland Browns. The 121 members of the NFL Referees Association (NFLRA) will gather in Dallas to vote on the contract Friday; if 51 percent vote for the deal, regular referees will work Sunday’s games.
Negotiators began writing a formal document late Wednesday, according to several people familiar with the negotiations.
The negotiations with referees were conducted largely by Goodell and the league’s top lawyer, Jeff Pash, with little of the direct owner involvement that dominated negotiations with players last year.
The lockout began in June, and while a fight over the referees’ pensions was the most prominent hurdle — and the final one that the sides were working — the league also sought more control over grooming and replacing referees, in the name of improving officiating long term.
But as officiating and the control of the games deteriorated with each week, Goodell came under withering fire, which reached a peak on Tuesday morning. The uproar seemed to take some owners by surprise, but there was little question Wednesday night that it spurred them into action. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay wrote on his Twitter feed that owners were “desperately trying” to get a deal done.
“Let’s be clear, when our N.F.L. Fans talk, we listen,” Irsay tweeted. “if you’re unhappy, we’re unhappy … we’re here to serve you. Everything we do is to please you!”
First, though, the league and referees had to please each other. Early Wednesday, they reached a compromise on the hiring of additional referees to create the “bench” that the league wants to use to replace referees they believe are underperforming.
The pension proved more complicated. The referees had hoped to retain a traditional pension while the league wanted to eliminate it in favor of 401(k)s. The referees had offered a proposal to have current referees retain their pensions while new referees who are hired would be enrolled in 401(k)s. That would allow the league to get rid of the pensions by attrition, as the existing referees retired.
On Tuesday night, owners were said to have dug in and were unwilling to make any more concessions. But on Wednesday, they were believed to have agreed to a short period of several years in which current referees would retain their pensions before they are converted to a 401(k).
When they return to action, the regular referees are likely to be rusty for at least a few games; they, like the players, use preseason games to round into form. But they will have a better command of the rules than the replacements did. Even before the regular season began, referee Ed Hochuli became a self-styled headmaster of officiating boot camp during the lockout, circulating five-hour tests on rules among the 121 referees, conducting weekly conference calls to discuss rules and reviewing tape every week so that referees will be prepared to step in.
Don’t think the return of the league’s regular referees means the end to all criticism of the way a game is refereed. “They’re still human beings so they still have that error factor,” said Seattle linebacker Leroy Hill.
There were some who compared the replacement referees to substitute teachers who were being manipulated and fooled by the coaches and their players, who were getting away with infractions.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll didn’t see that, though, when asked about the officiating Wednesday, hours before the lockout ended. “I’m not seeing them call less stuff,” Carroll said. “I’m seeing them call more stuff.”
Seattle has been penalized 32 times this season, the most of any team in the league. Fourteen of those penalties occurred in Monday night’s game against Green Bay, which equaled the fourth-most called against Seattle in any single game in franchise history.
And while Carroll looked ahead to the return of the regular referees, he didn’t for a minute entertain the notion that it would end the scrutiny of referees.
“When the real guys come back in,” Carroll said, “they’re going to be great … but they still are going to make calls that you’re going to question, you know.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Danny O’Neil contributed to this report. Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.