The NFL and the NFL Referee's Association reached an agreement late Wednesday night on an eight-year deal that ended the lockout and will enable regular referees to work Week 4 games.
Commissioner Roger Goodell temporarily lifted the lockout, and a regular refereeing crew was being assembled to work Thursday night's game in Baltimore between the Ravens and Cleveland Browns.
"Our officials will be back on the field starting tomorrow night," Goodell said in a joint statement released by the NFL and NFLRA. "We appreciate the commitment of the NFLRA in working through the issues to reach this important agreement."
Marathon negotiating sessions over five days helped the sides methodically work through the remaining obstacles. In the end, the deal includes:
--The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for five years or until an official earns 20 years of service. The plan will then be frozen and will switch to a 401(k)-type of plan.
--One of the main sticking points for the NFL was a developmental program for backup officials. In the end, the agreement includes the NFL having 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.
--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 new deal must be ratified by 121 officials and accepted by the NFLRA's board of directors, but the agreement will allow for a crew to work Thursday night's game. Houston-based referee Walter Anderson told The Houston Chronicle that officials must ratify the agreement in Dallas on Friday, get their uniforms and handle administrative duties before leaving for their game assignments, but that is expected to be a formality at this point.
"Our Board of Directors has unanimously approved taking this proposed CBA to the membership for a ratification vote," NFLRA president Scott Green said in the joint statement. "We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week's games."
In the end, the NFL and NFLRA touted this as the longest agreement with game officials in league history.
"The long-term future of our game requires that we seek improvement in every area, including officiating," Goodell said. "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."
"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."
Ed Hochuli, the NFL official best known for his big biceps, has made sure the officials are mentally ready, according to an official source cited by SI.com's Peter King. Hochuli has conducted tests with the officials each week similar to those they go through when working, helping to keep them abreast of rules changes and interpretations.
"That's one of the reasons why the officials will be up to date and ready to go," the officiating source told King. "Ed grabbed the bull by the horns and made sure that whenever this thing ended, the regular officials would be ready to go back to work immediately."
The league is reportedly prepared to forgo the referee's typical physical in order to get them on the field for this week's games.
The reported agreement on backup officials involves a developmental program to be created as a compromise to the NFL's insistence that 21 officials be added to the current pool of 121 NFLRA members, an NFLRA source told NFL.com.
The 21 backup officials won't become members of the NFLRA, but will join a developmental program and be trained to work NFL games. They will be mentored, by NFL crews during the week, but won't work games and won't be eligible to be subbed out.
As the referees improve, they'll be considered for NFLRA membership, with the financial allotment being adjusted to reflect any new members.
The sides agreed that it was crucial to have more qualified referees available when circumstances arise outside of football, such as personal reasons.
According to NFL.com's Albert Breer, this week's negotiations included 8-9 hours on Saturday and Sunday, followed by phone conversations Monday. A 17-hour session Tuesday was followed by more than 14 hours of talks Wednesday before the agreement was finally reached.