The National Football League's regular referees will return to the field Thursday night after reaching a tentative labor deal that kicked replacement officials to the curb, ending a major source of frustration and embarrassment for fans, players and the league.
In place of the replacement referees, most of whom had officiated no more than a handful of pro games, the league put together a veteran crew with a combined 70 seasons of NFL experience to handle Thursday night's game between the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens, the first since league owners lifted the lockout Wednesday night.
"Never thought I would be excited for the refs to come back to work but it's about time," Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Cribbs tweeted Thursday. "It was definitely necessary!"
The eight-year deal -- the longest ever for officials, according to the NFL -- gives the union referees a pay raise and keeps their pension program in place for five years.
It suspends a lockout that began before the league's preseason, leading to a series of gaffes that climaxed in a furor over a botched call that allowed the Seattle Seahawks to walk away with a victory in Monday night's nationally televised game. The league acknowledged Tuesday that the Green Bay Packers should have won, but allowed the result of the game to stand.
Union members still must ratify the deal, but the league has lifted the lockout to allow crews to handle games, pending that vote.
While they have not called a game since last season, the league's veteran crews will be ready to go, said retired official Mason "Red" Cashion.
"These guys have been working every week, really since May, to get ready for the season, through conference calls, through video, through meetings of their own," Cashion said. "And that's something that the officials have done simply because they have enough pride in what they do that they wanted to be ready. And they are ready."
The eight-year deal includes details about officials' pensions and retirement benefits, and adds a pay bump from $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013. The pay will rise to $205,000 by 2019.
The agreement will also allow the NFL to hire some officials on a year-round basis and hire additional referees so they can be trained.
"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," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.
The return of the league's regular referees won't put an end to controversial calls, said retired NFL player Tiki Barber. But it will raise the respect level between coaches and players and officials, Barber said.
"There's still going to be arguing with referees," he said. "They're still going to make bad calls. But now we're going to know that it's coming from a base of knowledge. These guys know what they're talking about and they're going to have an argument for why they do what they do on the field."
The deal came almost exactly 48 hours after the controversial ending of the Monday night game, which the Seahawks won 14-12 after replacement officials gave possession of a disputed ball, and a touchdown, to Seattle receiver Golden Tate.
In what became a widely mocked symbol of the quality of officiating by the replacements, a photo from that game shows two officials in the end zone displaying competing signals: one indicating a touchdown, the other an interception.
The result generated intense and immediate criticism of the league -- even President Barack Obama weighed in Tuesday urging a quick resolution. On Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was "very pleased" with the resolution.
While neither the league nor officials have said so, the outcry that followed the game clearly had a lot to do with the quick resolution of the lockout after weeks of unproductive negotiations, Barber said Tuesday on CNN's "Starting Point."
"So it resonated in people's minds in a much greater way than I think the league anticipated, and the owners -- who are businessmen themselves and probably saw some kind of hit happening to their business -- had to act," he said.
Much as it was after the Monday game, Twitter was buzzing with discussion of the deal. For a while, in the early morning, the name of one of the NFL's more iconic officials, the heavily muscled Ed Hochuli, was one of the most-discussed topics among Twitter users in the United States.
"I've never been more excited to see another man's biceps than this Sunday to see Ed Hochuli back officiating," a Twitter user named Robby Donoho wrote. "It's. About. Time."
SA fans excited by return of referees
Here in San Antonio, football fans are also excited about the return of the officials. However, it is two visitors to the Alamo City that may be the most excited of all.
"Oh yes. We're original Green Bay; we've been there forever,” said Mary Belche, a certified “cheese head” from Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Belche along with her friend Meg Renquin still carried some bitterness towards the replacement referees, despite being on vacation.
"[The call] was terrible. It was so obvious who caught the ball,” said a frustrated Renquin.