By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer
NEW YORK — So long, replacement refs. The NFL’s regular crews will be back on the field this week.
After two days of marathon negotiations — and mounting frustration among coaches, players and fans — the NFL and the referees’ union announced at midnight Thursday that a tentative agreement had been reached to end a lockout that began in June.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, who was at the bargaining table Tuesday and Wednesday, said the regular officials would work the Browns-Ravens game at Baltimore.
The tentative eight-year deal must be ratified by 51 percent of the union’s 121 members. They plan to vote Friday and Saturday in Dallas.
“Welcome back REFS,” Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller tweeted shortly after the news broke.
The replacements worked the first three weeks of games, triggering a wave of outrage that threatened to disrupt the rest of the season. After a missed call cost the Green Bay Packers a win on a chaotic final play at Seattle on Monday night, the two sides really got serious.
“We are glad to be getting back on the field for this week’s games,” referees’ union president Scott Green said.
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 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.
“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 in a telephone interview. “And I think that’s the most important message — that we’re ready.”
Replacement refs aren’t new to the NFL. They worked the first week of games in 2001 before a deal was reached. But those officials came from the highest level of college football; the current replacements do not. Their ability to call fast-moving NFL games drew mounting criticism through Week 3, climaxing last weekend, when ESPN analyst Jon Gruden called their work “tragic and comical.”
Those comments came during Monday Night Football, with Seattle beating Green Bay 14-12 on a disputed desperation pass completion into the end zone on the final play.