NEW YORK The NFL reached an agreement on a new eight-year labor deal with its game officials late Wednesday night, ending a lockout that forced overwhelmed replacement officials onto the field.
The use of replacement officials created three weeks of botched calls, acute criticism, furious coaches and players, and a blemish however temporary on the integrity of the country's most popular sport.
The agreement, which was being put in writing late Wednesday night, came 48 hours after the nadir of the league's experiment with replacement officials, when an incorrect call on the final play of the Monday night game cost Green Bay a victory against Seattle.
That nationally televised debacle spurred two days of furious and lengthy negotiations against the backdrop of immense public pressure and scorn, most of it directed at the league. Both sides were so determined to play no more games with replacements that they raced Wednesday night to get officials in place to work this week's schedule.
A crew of regular officials will be in Baltimore tonight to work the Ravens' game against Cleveland. The members of the officials' union will gather in Dallas to vote to ratify the contract Friday, and regular officials will work Sunday's games.
The negotiations with the officials were conducted largely by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's top lawyer, Jeff Pash, with little of the direct owner involvement that was featured during negotiations with the players last year. The latest round of talks began Saturday.
On Monday, before the Seattle-Green Bay game, the sides agreed to meet again Tuesday. Once the talks began that morning, they took on a new urgency with some owners. The sides met for 17 hours Tuesday and went well into the night Wednesday.
The league locked out the officials in June, and while a fight over the officials' pensions was the most prominent hurdle and the final one that the sides were working on late Wednesday the league also sought more control over grooming and replacing officials in the name of improving officiating long term.
But as officiating and the control of the games deteriorated with each week, Goodell came under withering fire, which reached a peak Tuesday morning. The level of the uproar seemed to take some owners by surprise, but there was little question Wednesday night that it spurred them into action. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted that owners were "desperately trying" to get a deal done.
"Let's be clear, when our N.F.L. Fans talk, we listen," Irsay tweeted. "if you're unhappy, we're unhappy we're here to serve you. Everything we do is to please you!"
First, though, the league and officials had to please each other. Early Wednesday, they reached a compromise on the hiring of additional officials to create the "bench" the league wants to use to replace officials they believe are underperforming.
The pension proved more complicated. Officials had hoped to retain a traditional pension, while the league wanted to eliminate it in favor of a 401(k). The officials had offered a proposal to have current officials retain their pensions while new officials who are hired would be enrolled in a 401(k). That would allow the league to get rid of the pensions by attrition, as existing officials retired.
Tuesday night, owners were said to have dug in and were unwilling to make any more concessions. But Wednesday, they were believed to have agreed to a short period of several years in which current officials would retain their pensions before they are converted to a 401(k).
When they return, the regular officials are likely to be rusty for at least a few games But they will certainly have a better command of the rules than the replacements did.
During the lockout, referee Ed Hochuli became a self-styled headmaster of officiating boot camp, circulating five-hour tests on rules among the 121 officials, conducting weekly conference calls to discuss rules and sending around hours of tape every week so that officials would be prepared to step in.