by Mike Garafolo, USA TODAY Sports
The NFL's long nationally televised nightmare is over.
After two full days of face-to-face talks following Monday's phone conversations, the league and the NFL Referees Association have reached an agreement to end the three-month lockout and send the regular officials back to work for this week's slate of games, beginning with Thursday's matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.
The new agreement is for eight years and runs through the 2019 season, the longest such contract between the NFL and the officials in league history.
The replacement refs are gone after three chaotic weeks that included plenty of blown and missed calls, culminating in Monday's controversial call to end the Seattle Seahawks' victory over the Green Bay Packers in a touchdown instead of the proper call of an interception.
"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," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "Now it's time to put the focus back on the teams and players where it belongs."
Referee Ed Hochuli, who has been working to keep the officials mentally sharp during the lockout via tests and weekly conference calls, spoke with USA TODAY Sports shortly after the agreement was announced.
"All of us are very, very happy that this got resolved," Hochuli said. "We're all excited to be back. And we're ready. I feel very good about the preparation of our leadership."
Hochuli said the officials will fly to Dallas on Friday and vote to ratify the agreement on Saturday. Goodell lifted the lockout so the regular officials can work Thursday's game, thus ensuring there will be no competitive disadvantage between the Ravens and Browns and those teams playing on Sunday.
Here's a look at how the major sticking points were resolved:
-- The defined pension plan will remain in place through the 2016 season or until the official reaches 20 years of service. After that, the 401(k) kicks in for all officials, with an average league contribution of $18,000 now up to an average of $23,000 by 2019.
-- The average salaries will increase from an average of $149,000 last year to $173,000 in 2013 and up to $205,000 by the end of the agreement.
-- The NFL's desire to hire more officials on a developmental basis was said to be an easy issue to work around, and that was the case. The union agreed to allow the league to hire those officials "for training and development purposes." There were indications the number of officials, who would basically serve as a "taxi squad" to make current officials more accountable, would be 21. The league didn't specify the number in their release announcing the agreement and said they have the right to determine the number of officials.
In short, the NFL got their environment of "accountability" for the current refs.
"The long-term future of our game requires that we seek improvement in every area, including officiating," Goodell said in his statement. "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."
Said Hochuli, "We missed the preseason, but we're prepared from the standpoint of the video and the rules; we're prepared and ready to roll. And hopefully we can put this behind us. And we're all excited to be back."
Contributing: Jim Corbett
by Mike Garafolo, USA TODAY Sports