NEW YORK - The NFL's long nationally-televised nightmare is over.
After two full days of face-to-face talks following Monday's phone conversations, the league and the NFL Referees Association reached an agreement to end the three-month lockout and send the regular officials back to work for this week's slate of games, beginning with Thursday night's matchup between the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.
The new agreement is for eight years and runs through the 2019 season, the longest such contract between the NFL and the officials in league history.
The replacement refs are gone after three chaotic weeks that included plenty of blown and missed calls, culminating in Monday's controversial call to end the Seattle Seahawks' victory over the Green Bay Packers in a touchdown instead of the proper call of an interception.
"We look forward to having the finest officials in sports back on the field, and I want to give a special thanks to NFL fans for their passion," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "Now it's time to put the focus back on the teams and players, where it belongs."
Referee Ed Hochuli, who has been working to keep the officials mentally sharp during the lockout via tests and weekly conference calls, spoke with USA TODAY Sports shortly after the agreement was announced.
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"All of us are very, very happy that this got resolved," Hochuli said. "We're all excited to be back. And we're ready. I feel very good about the preparation of our leadership.
"Everybody is glad that can move on and get back to officiating because one of the reasons we do it is we enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the challenge. There are a lot of e-mails flying. We're like a bunch of old women."
Hochuli said officials will fly to Dallas on Friday and vote to ratify the agreement on Saturday. Goodell lifted the lockout so the regular officials can work Thursday's game, thus ensuring there will be no competitive disadvantage between the Ravens and Browns and those teams playing on Sunday.
Here's a look at how the major sticking points were resolved:
-- The defined pension plan will remain in place through the 2016 season or until the official reaches 20 years or service. After that, the 401(k) kicks in for all officials, with an average league contribution of $18,000 increased to an average of $23,000 by 2019.
-- Salaries will increase from an average of $149,000 last year to $173,000 in 2013 and up to $205,000 by the end of the agreement.
-- The NFL's desire to hire more officials on a developmental basis was said to be an easy issue to work around, and that was the case. The union agreed to allow the league to hire five officials "for training and development" purposes.
"It gives you an opportunity to let five guys learn. Then they can identify who they ultimately want to bring along. It's a very positive development,'' NFLRA executive committee member Jeff Triplette told USA TODAY Sports.
In short, the NFL got their environment of "accountability" for the current refs.
"The long-term future of our game requires that we seek improvement in every area, including officiating," Goodell said in his statement. "This agreement supports long-term reforms that will make officiating better. The teams, players and fans want and deserve both consistency and quality in officiating."
Triplette said he expected the agreement to be ratified.
"We're hearing strong support from the membership," he said. "Guys are sending e-mail notes in. Obviously, the guys don't know all the details yet. But the general outline of the agreement has been communicated and folks are positive about what took place."
Said Hochuli, "We missed the preseason, but we're prepared from the standpoint of the video and the rules. We're prepared and ready to roll. And hopefully we can put this behind us. We're all excited to be back."
Immediate reaction from the players was understandably positive.
"Obviously, the league wants the best product out on the field,'' Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri told USA TODAY Sports. "At the end of the day, we just want to have the best product on the field for the players and for the safety of the players. Ultimately that's the No. 1 goal for the players.
"We'll welcome them with open arms.''
Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour said: "The players I've talked to are ecstatic that we have the level of officiating back on the field that is up to NFL standards. It's a great day for all players involved, the NFL, the officials and also the fans. Through all of this, the fans really got the short end of the stick.
"At the of the day, it will still take the officials some time to knock off the rust and get back into football shape. I don't want to put too much on their shoulders in coming back, in terms of expectations to be in mid-season form. It takes time to work back into the flow. They're human. They'll make mistakes. But they're the best of the best, and that's all you can ask for at this point."
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