Making of a Deal: A look back at the week the referees went back to work around the NFL

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By Monday afternoon, the NFL had been in 10 days of intensive negotiations with the union for its game officials.

It was clear by last weekend that the officials' pension plan -- one of the critical elements of the talks -- would be terminated, with only the details of its remaining longevity to be settled. That left the issue of whether the league would be allowed to hire full-time officials as well as other officials who would be available to replace underperforming ones.

After almost three full weeks of games officiated by inexperienced replacements, and the scorn that followed, the two sides were finally moving toward completion of a deal to return the regular officials to the field. The question, though, was when.

With commissioner Roger Goodell deeply involved in the talks for at least a month, some of those involved in the negotiations said they thought an agreement probably would have been reached this past week no matter what circumstances existed.

But others said they thought the negotiations were moving too slowly. And then the Seattle Seahawks won a game on national television that they should not have, the catalyst that accelerated the talks until a deal was completed Wednesday night.

"The Monday night game -- we were in such intensive negotiations over the last three weeks that it may have pushed the parties further along, but we were really in intensive negotiations for the last two weeks," Goodell said in a conference call Thursday.

Jeff Triplette, a game official who was deeply involved in negotiations, said on Sirius XM radio that he was not sure there would be a deal even now if not for the Monday night game.

"That's hard to say," he said. "A lot of preliminary work had gone in before any of the games this past weekend, so that's hard to say."

Getting there so soon after the Seattle debacle was no sure thing, even though the league was at the center of a staggering amount of criticism.

People within the league and within the officials union saw the play -- Seattle won the game on a touchdown catch despite a missed offensive pass interference penalty and a question of whether Seahawks receiver Golden Tate actually caught the ball -- and knew almost immediately how significant it would be in the context of the lockout, they said.

One official who was not watching the game received a phone call right after the Seahawks' disputed touchdown was upheld. The caller predicted, "You're going back to work next weekend."

In the hours after the blown call, as the furor played out on morning news programs and even President Barack Obama expressed disappointment, high-ranking league officials talked to owners. The owners told them to stay the course in negotiations, urging them not to overreact.

While no owners wanted the negotiators to cave, there were differences among them.

A number of owners -- among them, according to people with knowledge of the negotiations, the Panthers' Jerry Richardson and the Jets' Woody Johnson -- initially dug in Tuesday, reluctant to make any deal under such public pressure. Others, including the Patriots' Robert Kraft and the Giants' John Mara, were concerned that damage was being done to the league by the subpar officiating and the intense focus on it.

When the league and the union returned to the negotiating table Tuesday, each side was more conciliatory. The officials wanted to get back to work and undoubtedly realized this was the time to get the best deal they could. In the end, the league probably moved more than the officials to complete the deal.

"There was a sense of urgency on both sides to get it done," Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in a telephone interview. "The integrity of the brand is incredibly important. The officiating was creating more controversy and focus on it than on play, and that's something you never want to happen."

With Goodell leaning on the advice of four owners who worked closely on the negotiations -- Mara, Blank, the Texans' Robert McNair and the Chiefs' Clark Hunt -- the league moved most significantly during the final two days of talks on the pension termination.

Before the talks resumed Tuesday, the league wanted the pension to terminate after two years. By the time an agreement was reached Wednesday night, it had increased its offer to five. That was a big victory for the officials, although the league ultimately accomplished its goal of getting rid of the pension, at the cost of some short-term spending.

The officials moved on the length of the contract. Blank had had conversations with Goodell several weeks ago in which he urged Goodell to aim for a longer contract than the five years the officials wanted. In the end, the contract will run for eight years, a critical reason the league was willing to wait five years to terminate the pension.

And with the league focused on changing the way officiating is run, it won a concession from officials to allow the hiring of a number of full-time officials, starting in 2013, an idea that had been resisted.

The league also won the option to hire officials to develop a bench that can be used to replace those officials the NFL thinks are underperforming. But they will have to be paid out of a separate pool of money, not the money designated for existing officials -- a victory for the union.

Goodell relied on some of the same influential owners who were critical to getting a collective bargaining agreement with players last year -- Kraft and Mara among them -- and gauged their support for negotiating points, and they in turn helped unite the other owners. By about 8 p.m. Wednesday, the deal was largely finished.

"We learned when we did the deal with the players that doing a good deal on both sides for the long term is very difficult," Kraft said in a telephone interview. "It means you've got to take on hard issues. Fans were frustrated the same way we as owners were. I hope they understand it takes two sides to do a deal."

By Thursday afternoon, the crew assignments for this weekend's games had made their way onto Twitter, a comical indication of just how anxious everyone was to see the officials back at work.

Mara said he was sorry it had taken so long, but he was relieved it was over.

"In a few weeks, we can go back to complaining about the regular officials," he said.

Steelers


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