Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard watches replacement officials discuss… (Doug Kapustin / McClatchy-Tribune )
It's game over for NFL replacements.
The regular officials are coming back.
The NFL and NFL Referees Assn. reached an agreement on an eight-year deal late Wednesday that immediately puts the regulars back on the field, beginning with the game Thursday night between Cleveland and Baltimore.
"Our officials will be back on the field starting tomorrow night," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement released after midnight on the East Coast. "We appreciate the commitment of the NFLRA in working through the issues to reach this important agreement."
The deal lifts a lockout that lasted almost four months and puts to rest the fiasco of inexperienced replacement officials, whose slipshod performances cast a shadow on the credibility of the nation's most popular and successful sports league.
"The moment I heard, I dropped down on the floor and started doing pushups," joked longtime referee Ed Hochuli, known for his bulging biceps.
"Subject to this being approved [by the full vote of union members], I'm excited to get back," Hochuli said. "We all are. It's good to enjoy your job, and we enjoy our job. It's a lot of hard work and a lot of pressure, and it takes a lot of training to do it. We're glad we're going to get a chance to get back out and go to work."
The low point for replacements came Monday night in Seattle, when the Green Bay Packers were denied a victory because of a blown call by an official on a game-deciding Hail Mary play. That ramped up the urgency to strike a deal as soon as possible.
Earlier Wednesday the NFL took action against two coaches for their treatment of replacement officials. New England Coach Bill Belichick was fined $50,000 for grabbing the arm of an official after a loss Sunday at Baltimore, and Kyle Shanahan, a Washington Redskins assistant and son of Coach Mike Shanahan, was fined $25,000 for "abuse of officials" after berating one in his team's loss to Cincinnati.
The deal must still be ratified in person by the 121 members of the NFLRA, a vote that will be taken in Dallas when the officials convene Friday to pick up their equipment and their Sunday or Monday game assignments.
Assisting in the negotiations was George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who worked extensively with the NFL and NFL Players Assn. during the lockout of players last year.
To the officials, the most important part of the negotiations was that the defined-benefit pension plan would be maintained. The deal keeps it in place for five years before freezing it and rolling pensions over to a 401(k) type plan.
The freezing of the defined-benefit plan after five years might not be a popular concession with all officials because 96 of them would not reach the 20-year mark at the end of that five-year period. The pension plan caps at 20 years, and therefore 80% of the officials would not realize that pension goal.
"That will make for an interesting vote," longtime referee Tony Corrente said. "Those young guys, those were the guys we were fighting for. So if that's the case, a lot of people wonder why we did this in the first place if we made that concession."
Hochuli said the regular officials have worked hard to stay in shape mentally and physically in order to return immediately.
"We haven't worked preseason games, and obviously you miss the ability to practice before the regular season starts," he said. "But aside from that we have worked very hard as a group to be ready for when this happens and we get back on the field. We've done 18 rules tests — we're talking tests that take five or more hours to answer — we've watched hours of video each week, we've had our conference calls each week, and a lot of email exchanged on things we saw in the videos."
Asked if the regular officials will be under even greater scrutiny upon their return, Hochuli said he expects that.
"I think the honeymoon will probably last for the first quarter," he said. "Then it will be back to business as usual."