After emerging from marathon negotiations that resulted in an eight-year agreement with the NFL's regular officials, there were only two words for commissioner Roger Goodell to say to fans who were fed up with the replacements: We're sorry.
"We're sorry to have put fans through that," Goodell said Thursday. "Sometimes you have to go through something like that in the short term for the right agreement for the long term. Obviously, when you go through something like this, it's painful for everybody."
The agreement came after three weeks in which replacement officials were used, and nearly 48 hours to the minute after one of the most disputed calls in NFL history.
On the final play of the Packers-Seahawks game Monday night in Seattle, officials ruled that Russell Wilson's pass to Golden Tate was a touchdown, even though replays appeared to show that Packers safety M.D. Jennings had possession first and should have been awarded an interception. Instead, officials ruled it simultaneous possession, and Seattle won, 14-12.
The play set off a torrent of criticism, with even President Obama weighing in, and nearly continuous negotiations afterward resulted in the new collective-bargaining agreement.
It must be ratified by the NFL Referees Association, but Goodell temporarily lifted the lockout to allow regular officials to work Thursday night's Browns-Ravens game in Baltimore.
Goodell said he understood the outcry, although he wouldn't say Jennings actually intercepted the pass.
"I have come to learn in the NFL, particularly with the popularity of the game and the influence it has on today's society, not much surprises me about what happens in the NFL and the influence and attention that it gets," Goodell said. "That is a reaction not only of our passionate fan base, but this moved quickly into mainstream media. That is a signal of the influence of the game in today's society."
Goodell believes the controversial call may have been a catalyst in getting the deal done, but he noted the sides had been in "intensive negotiations for the last two weeks."
Players and coaches reacted with relief to the agreement.
Jets defensive tackle Sione Po'uha said of the replacements: "They had big shoes to fill. You've got to give them props for doing their best."
"Let's say it put a smile on my face," Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson said. "Just happy they're back."
Jets safety LaRon Landry was happy to see the deal done.
"They say the replacement refs changed the game a little bit, so now we've got our big dogs back -- the real zebras," Landry said. "Either way, we've still got to play to the best of our ability. I'm glad to have them back but we still have a ballgame to win."
"It's great that it's over," Kiwanuka said. "Say what you want about the NFL and their front-office policies; they recognized an issue and did what they had to do to get it done. We all know they're good negotiators, and the timing is better late than never."
Teammate Justin Tuck criticized the league for failing to reach agreement with the officials before Wednesday night.
"We got a sense of how the replacement guys called games, so it's going to be tough, especially for the wide receiver and cornerback positions," Tuck said. "It's going to be an adjustment period. I hope it's shorter than I think it's going to be."
But Tuck believes the regular officials will improve the game.
"The referees coming back now will make mistakes," he said, "as long as it isn't those blatant ones that cost teams a game."
With Tom Rock, Kimberley A. Martin and Greg Logan.