NEW YORK — The replacement officials are gone and the NFL is sorry it took so long. Now fans can go back to complaining about the calls made by the regular refs.
The sport's experiment with replacements ends Thursday night when a veteran crew works the Browns-Ravens game. Referee Gene Steratore, a 10-year veteran, strolled onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium with little fanfare about 2½ hours before kickoff, still wearing a coat and tie as he paced along the sidelines. Among his other routine tasks was a brief talk to a stadium official about the wireless on-field microphone the referee wears.
"Show me how this one works," Steratore said as he examined the unit.
Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to fans for the anxiety of the last three weeks while denying that using replacement officials increased the chances of flagrant mistakes.
After two days of marathon negotiations — and mounting frustration across the league — the NFL and the officials' union announced at midnight Wednesday that a tentative eight-year agreement had been reached to end a lockout that began in June.
The return of the regulars couldn't come soon enough for many players, coaches and fans.
"Those guys might mess up every now and then, but we can live with that happening with professional guys out there," Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson said.
Goodell insisted the timing of the deal was not a reaction to the outcry over Monday night's game, when a missed call cost Green Bay a win against the Seattle Seahawks. The two sides had been in "intensive negotiations" the last two weeks, he said, although he acknowledged it "may have pushed the parties further along."
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.
"Obviously when you go through something like this, it is painful for everybody," Goodell said. "Most importantly, it is painful for our fans. We are sorry to have to put our fans through that, but it is something that in the short term you sometimes have to do to make sure you get the right kind of deal for the long term and make sure you continue to grow the game."
The commissioner was watching at home Monday night.
"You never want to see a game end like that," he said.
But Goodell repeatedly reminded reporters that the regular officials have botched plenty of calls over the years.
The players don't necessarily disagree on that point.
"Everything is fine until there is a call that decides a game and then people — players, fans, reporters — are going to be complaining again," Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. "If you thought there was a microscope on the replacement refs, just wait until people start expecting the regular refs to be perfect."
The new agreement will indeed improve officiating in the future, Goodell asserted, reducing mistakes like those made Monday and making the strains of the last three weeks worthwhile.
Goodell acknowledged "you're always worried" about the perception of the league.
"Obviously, this has gotten a lot of attention," he said. "It hasn't been positive, and it's something that you have to fight through and get to the long term. ... We always are going to have to work harder to make sure we get people's trust and confidence in us."
The agreement hinged on working out pension and retirement benefits for the officials, who are part-time employees of the league. Goodell said the NFL's offer to increase the deal's length from five to eight years spurred some concessions from the officials.
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