Roger Goodell Apologizes to NFL Fans for 'Painful' Officials Lockout NEW YORK — The NFL's
regular officiating crews are back, and Commissioner Roger Goodell has
apologized to the fans who fretted about the replacements the last three
weeks.

After two days of marathon
negotiations – and mounting frustration across the league – the NFL and
the officials' union announced at midnight Thursday that a tentative
eight-year agreement had been reached to end a lockout that began in
June. The regular refs' return couldn't have come soon enough for many
players, coaches and fans.

"Obviously when you go through
something like this, it's painful for everybody," Goodell said on a
conference call about 12 hours after the deal was struck. "Most
importantly, it's painful for fans. We're sorry to have to put fans
through that. Sometimes you have to go through something like that in
the short term for the right agreement for the long term."

The deal follows Seattle's
chaotic last-second win over Green Bay on Monday night in which the
replacement officials struggled. Goodell, who was at the bargaining
table Tuesday and Wednesday, said regular officials would work the
Browns-Ravens game at Baltimore on Thursday night.

The seven-man crew working the game is led by referee Gene Steratore, a 10-year NFL veteran.

"We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week's games," NFL Referees Association President Scott Green said.

The players' union is happy to have them.

"Our workplace is safer with the
return of our professional referees," the NFLPA said in a statement
Thursday. "We welcome our fellow union members back on our field."

Plenty of players chimed in, too.

"Never thought I would be
excited for the refs to come back to work but it's about time it was
definitely necessary!" Cleveland return specialist Josh Cribbs tweeted
Thursday morning.

Added Minnesota punter Chris
Kluwe
: "It was a noble experiment, but I think ultimately a failed
experiment, from what we've seen. It'll be good not to have to worry
about that when we're on the field. It's good that it won't be a
distraction anymore."

Shortly after the news broke, Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller tweeted, "Welcome back REFS."

The tentative deal must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members. They plan to vote Friday and Saturday in Dallas.

For the Packers, Redskins, Lions
and other teams who voiced their displeasure with calls that might have
swayed games, the agreement doesn't change their records. But after
having replacements for the first three weeks, triggering a wave of
outrage that threatened to disrupt the rest of the season, Titans
quarterback Matt Hasselbeck probably spoke for his peers by simply
echoing Spiller: "Welcome back."

The agreement hinged on working
out pension and retirement benefits for the officials, who are part-time
employees of the league. The tentative pact calls for their salaries to
increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in
2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019.

Under the proposed deal, the
current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current
officials through the 2016 season or until the official earns 20 years'
service. 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. The annual league contribution made
on behalf of each game official will begin with an average of more than
$18,000 per official and increase to more than $23,000 per official in
2019.

Beginning with the 2013 season,
the NFL will have the option to hire a number of officials on a
full-time basis to work year round, including on the field. The NFL also
will be able to retain additional officials for training and
development, and can assign those officials to work games. The number of
additional officials will be determined by the league.

"As you know, this has to be
ratified and we know very little about it, but we're excited to be back.
And ready," referee Ed Hochuli told The Associated Press by telephone.
"And I think that's the most important message – that we're ready."

The longest contract with on-field officials in NFL history was reached with the assistance of two federal mediators.

Replacements have been used both
to play and officiate NFL games before. In 1987, the players went on
strike and three games were played with replacement players. In 2001,
the first week of the regular season was officiated by replacements
before a deal was worked out.

One big difference: The
replacements 11 years ago generally came from the highest levels of
college football. These officials were from lower college divisions or
other leagues such as Arena Football.

After Seattle's 14-12 victory
against the Packers, their ability to call fast-moving NFL games drew
mounting criticism, with ESPN analyst Jon Gruden calling their work
"tragic and comical."

The Seahawks beat Green Bay on a
desperation pass into the end zone on the final play. Packers safety
M.D. Jennings had both hands on the ball in the end zone, and when he
fell to the ground in a scrum, both Jennings and Seahawks receiver
Golden Tate
had their arms on the ball.

The closest official to the
play, at the back of the end zone, signaled for the clock to stop, while
another official at the sideline ran in and then signaled touchdown.

The NFL said Tuesday that the
touchdown pass should not have been overturned – but acknowledged Tate
should have been called for offensive pass interference before the
catch. The league also said there was no indisputable evidence to
reverse the call made on the field.

That drew even louder howls of
disbelief. Some coaches, including Miami's Joe Philbin and Cincinnati's
Marvin Lewis, tried to restore some calm by instructing players not to
speak publicly on the issue.

Fines against two coaches for incidents involving the replacements were handed out Wednesday.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick
was docked $50,000 for trying to grab an official's arm Sunday to ask
for an explanation of a call after his team lost at Baltimore. And
Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was tagged for $25,000
for what the league called "abuse of officials" in the Redskins' loss to
Cincinnati on Sunday. Two other coaches, Denver's John Fox and
assistant Jack Del Rio, were fined Monday for their conduct involving
the replacements the previous week.

"I accept the discipline and I apologize for the incident," Belichick said.

Players were in no mood for apologies from anyone.

"I'll probably get in trouble
for this, but you have to have competent people," Carolina receiver
Steve Smith said. "And if you're incompetent, get them out of there."

And now they are out.