Nearly 48 hours after one of the most controversial officiating calls in NFL history set off a firestorm of criticism throughout the country, the league reached an eight-year contract agreement that will bring the regular officials back in time for this week's games.
A deal was reached just before midnight between the league and the NFL Referees Association, which had been locked out since early June. Replacement officials worked the first three weeks of the season. But after the final play of Monday night's Seahawks-Packers game, in which officials awarded the Seahawks a touchdown despite replays that showed Packers safety M.D. Jennings appeared to intercept Russell Wilson's pass, talks heated up and resulted in a deal.
The NFL and the NFL Referees Association announced in a joint statement that they had reached agreement on the eight-year deal, subject to ratification by the NFLRA. The ratification vote is expected to take place on Saturday, according to NFLRA lead negotiator Mike Arnold.
"Our officials will be back on the field starting [Thursday],'' commissioner Roger Goodell said. "We appreciate the commitment of the NFLRA in working through the issues to reach this important agreement.''
Said Scott Green, president of the NFLRA: "Our board of directors has unanimously approved taking this proposed CBA to the membership for a ratification vote. We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week's games.''
A crew of regular officials will work Thursday night's game between the Browns and Ravens in Baltimore. Regular crews also will work the remaining Week 4 games, assuming the deal is ratified. Goodell temporarily lifted the lockout in time for Thursday night's game.
"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.''
The agreement includes the following provisions:
The current pension plan will remain in effect for current officials through the 2016 season. 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, which will have two elements: an annual league contribution made on behalf of each game official that will begin with an average of more than $18,000 per official and increase to more than $23,000 per official in 2019, and a partial match on any additional contribution that an official makes to his 401(k) account.
Apart from their benefit package, the 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 NFL will have 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.
"It'd be good just to have the [regular officials] back, sooner rather than later," Jets guard Brandon Moore said. "I look forward to seeing them and I hope it works out. It won't change anything in what we do. Maybe I'll have a little more confidence that the guys calling the penalties and having to make crucial decisions know more about what they're doing."
The meetings between the league and locked-out officials were previously scheduled to take place Tuesday, but the outcry from fans and observers over what happened Monday night in Seattle clearly put a new urgency on the negotiations.
"Your loud voices r heard about getting Refs back,'' Colts owner Jim Irsay wrote on Twitter. "We're desperately trying 2 get it done! We want a deal that improves officiating overall.''
With Stephen Haynes