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.
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. 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.
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.
The tentative deal must be ratified by 51 percent of the union's 121 members. They plan to vote Friday and Saturday in Dallas.
Coaches and players began griping about the replacement officials in the preseason, but the tension seemed to boil over this past weekend. Scuffles after the whistle were frequent with players appearing to test the limits of the new officials, and coaches were fined for berating them.
"Guys are going to have to play with a lot of technique now," said Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones. "You're not going to get away with the touching down the field."
The football world fretted that a mistake by the replacements would decide a game, and that fear was realized on the prominent stage of "Monday Night Football," with the ensuing uproar reaching all the way to the White House.
The Seahawks won 14-12 on a desperation pass into the end zone on the final play after Golden Tate got away with offensive pass interference. Packers safety M.D. Jennings had both hands on the ball for what would have been a victory-clinching interception, but the officials on the field ruled he and Tate had simultaneous possession.
That call was confirmed by instant replay, and the NFL supported that decision the next day — while acknowledging Tate should have been penalized, which would've handed the win to Green Bay.
Unlike the replacement officials used for one game in 2001, who generally came from the highest levels of college football, this year's group was from lower college divisions or other leagues such as Arena Football.
No longer, at least, will critics say the officials on the field aren't accustomed to the speed of the game.
The longest contract with on-field officials in NFL history was reached with the assistance of two federal mediators. Referee Ed Hochuli told The Associated Press that he had yet to see full details of the deal, "but we're excited to be back."
"And ready," he said. "And I think that's the most important message — that we're ready."
The NFL players' union, which had protested that using replacements jeopardized health and safety, heartily welcomed back the regular officials.
"Our workplace is safer with the return of our professional referees," its statement said.
Goodell disputed that players' health and safety were ever compromised. He said he never heard any objections from sponsors pressuring the league to resolve the impasse.
The commissioner even tried to put a positive spin on the fact that the furor over Monday's calls was so widespread it drew opinionated tweets from athletes in other sports, Hollywood stars and President Barack Obama.
"Not much surprises me about what happens in the NFL and the influence and attention that it gets," he 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."
AP Sports Writer Joseph White in Baltimore, AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York and AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Allen Park, Mich., Joe Kay in Cincinnati and Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.